Saturday, 25 March 2023

RIP Eric Brown

News has sadly broken of the death of British science fiction writer Eric Brown at the far-too-young age of 62.

Brown was born in Haworth, Yorkshire in 1960 and began writing in the 1970s. He travelled extensively in the 1980s and began his SF publishing career with the novelette Krash-Bangg Joe and the Pineal-Zen Equation in 1987. He first acquired a wider audience with his first story collection, The Time-Lapsed Man, in 1990, followed by his debut novel, Meridian Days, in 1992.

Brown produced a significant amount of accomplished work over the next three decades, including the Bengal Station, Starship Seasons, Helix, Virex, Weird Space, Telemass, Multiplicity, Binary, Kon-Tiki and Enigma series, as well as an impressive number of stand-alone novels. He worked in space opera, cyberpunk and first contact stories in particular, as well as drawing on his travel experience to tell stories set in non-Western locales.

Brown was also a noted SF critic, and frequently wrote reviews of science fiction works for The Guardian, among other venues.

Despite critical acclaim, Brown never achieved the global ubiquity of contemporaries like Peter F. Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds. However, he had a solid audience, especially in the UK SF scene, and wrote right up until his death; he published three works in 2022 alone.

Brown died on 21 March from sepsis. He is survived by his wife Finn and daughter Freya. Condolences to his family, and he will be missed.

Friday, 24 March 2023

Reservation Dogs: Season 2

The Rez Dogs have split up. Elora has taken off for California without the rest of the crew, who are dealing with their own hardships. Her inevitable returns sparks both joy but also anger and jealousy. The crew also have to deal with wayward curses, the need for full-time employment, family bereavements, an energetic Native conference, Bear's unreliable spirit guide and a sinister "Catfish Cult" up to no good in the woods.

Reservation Dogs' first season was a perfectly-formed unit of television. It set out to do what it wanted to do - combining comedy, drama and fleeting moments of horror on a modern Native American Reservation - and executed it flawlessly. 

Annoyingly, because I'd already maxed out the score-metre on the first year, the second season establishes a new goal - all of the above, but better - and then executes that flawlessly as well.

The season opens with the gang scattered after the Season 1 finale, and it takes a couple of episodes for everyone to reform. Even when they do, the shadow of mistrust lies heavily on the group and it takes some cathartic emotional releases (thanks to a family bereavement and a pair of deranged social media influencers with a horrible line in cultural appropriation) for them to regroup properly.

A new theme then develops and it's hard to suppress a groan at the cliche even as it's written down: the gang has to grow up. They're out of school, the older members are now in full-time work and are struggling as they mix their new-found adult friends with the existing group. These are all familiar tensions and they've been done to death, but Reservation Dogs treats them like they're the newest ideas in town.

The show also continues its fine line in sometimes just rolling in an anthology story for the sheer hell of it. One episode revolves around Bear's mother and her friends as they attend a Native conference, both to discuss Native affairs but, more importantly, to party and look for prospective boyfriends. Another episode follows local cop Big as he inadvertently teams up with junkyard owner Kenny Boy, even more inadvertently takes a lot of drugs and then finds himself up against a sinister cult in the woods.

As I said about the first season, Reservation Dogs' mix of drama, comedy, occasional horror and pathos is unlike anything else on television apart, maybe, from network-mate Atlanta. In this second season, the show adds a little bit more heart. If the first season ultimately drove the group apart, this second year brings them back together and things like forgiveness and cooperation are a lot more in evidence. The show hasn't gone all gushy or overly sentimental, but it's definitely a warmer show this time around, culminating in the gang joining forces for a major road trip. The season's ending is surprisingly final, to the point that I wondered if the writers had been told to wrap things up for good, but a third season has since been commissioned.

Reservation Dogs' sophomore season (*****) is outstanding television, being smart, funny, occasionally biting and always compelling. The show is available to watch on FX and Hulu in the United States and on Disney+ in much 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.

Friday, 17 March 2023

RIP Lance Reddick

In shocking news, it has been announced that actor Lance Reddick has passed away at the too-young age of 60. The actor was known for his contributions to a multitude of major TV shows, including The Wire, Fringe, Lost and Bosch, as well as the John Wick movie franchise and the Horizon and Destiny video game series.

Reddick was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1962. His first love was music, and he pursued a musical academic career. He switched to acting in the early 1990s and attended the Yale School of Drama. He started being cast in minor roles in both film and on TV in the mid-1990s and achieved his first breakthrough roles for HBO, by playing Johnny Basil on prison drama Oz (2000-01) and Marvin in The Corner (2001), based on David Simon and Ed Burns's book about the Baltimore drugs trade.

A year later Reddick re-teamed with Simon and Burns for The Wire (2002-08), often cited as the greatest TV show of all time. He was cast in the key role of Cedric Daniels, a promising police officer whose career had been thrown into jeopardy by suspected wrongdoing in a unit he was part of, although he managed to avoid direct punishment. Throughout the series Daniels is torn between playing the career game - which requires politicking, turning a blind eye to some things and knowing the right people - and listening to his conscience and backing his subordinates (particularly wild card Jimmy McNulty) to actually do some good in defeating the criminal gangs in the city. In the series finale, he is unable to square the circle any more and retires from the police force to pursue a career as a criminal defence lawyer. Reddick appeared in more episodes of The Wire than any other actor (58 out of 60 episodes).

His appearance in the critically-feted The Wire made him an in-demand actor and he cropped up in numerous American TV shows of the 2000s and 2010s, usually whenever a serious, authoritative figure was required. As well as numerous guest roles, he co-headlined the reality-hopping thriller series Fringe (2008-13), playing the role of Phillip Broyles across all five seasons. He also had a recurring role on Lost, playing the enigmatic Matthew Abaddon in four episodes in 2008 and 2009.

After Fringe's conclusion, he was cast as Deputy Chief Irvin Irving on Bosch (2014-21), appearing in all seven seasons. He did not return for spin-off/sequel series Bosch: Legacy, which started in 2022. He was also a regular on sitcom Corporate from 2018 to 2019, and voiced the antagonist Thordak in the second season of The Legend of Vox Machina. He also played Albert Wesker in the Resident Evil TV series from Netflix.

In film he mostly played in supporting roles, but won over new fans by playing the role of Charon in all four John Wick movies.

Reddick also built up a cult following with his popular video game roles. He played Commander Zavala in every installment of the Destiny franchise, and both voiced and provided the appearance for semi-antagonist/sometimes-ally Sylens in both Horizon Zero Dawn (2017) and Horizon Forbidden West (2022). He also played Martin Hatch in Quantum Break (2016), which combined live-action TV material with a video game.

Reddick was a prolific performer, and had numerous projects in the can at the time of his passing. He will be seen in the upcoming White Men Can't Jump remake and John Wick spin-off Ballerina, as well as the Disney+ Percy Jackson and the Olympians TV series. Reddick had also recorded both voice and motion capture the expansion Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores, due out next month.

According to early reports, Lance Reddick passed away of natural causes.

A highly talented actor with tremendous screen presence and gravitas, whose serious screen roles sometimes belied the actor's sense of humour (more readily expressed on his social media channels), Lance Reddick will be very much missed, and has gone far too soon.

Friday, 10 March 2023


With the release of the full cast list for the Dungeons & Dragons movie, Honor Among Thieves, it's been confirmed that Game of Thrones actor Ian Hanmore is playing the iconic role of Szass Tam, Zulkir of Necromancy in the Forgotten Realms world.

Hanmore played the character of Pyat Pree, one of the Warlocks of Qarth, in Season 2 of Game of Thrones, where he infamously kidnapped Daenerys' dragons but then came to a flaming end. Hanmore has been a stage and screen actor for more than thirty years, chalking up appearances in Doctor Who, Life on Mars, Shameless, Outlander and Carnival Row among many other performances.

Szass Tam is one of the oldest and most notable characters in the Forgotten Realms world. He was created by Ed Greenwood, the creator of the Realms, as a primary villain in that world and was first mentioned in a short story Greenwood penned in the late 1960s. He first appeared on-screen, as it were, in a short story Greenwood wrote in the late 1970s, around the time he started contributing to Dragon Magazine. Tam is mentioned in Dragon articles of the early 1980s and the original Forgotten Realms Campaign Set (1987) before getting a more prominent role in the sourcebooks Dreams of the Red Wizards (1988) and Spellbound (1995). In between he debuted in the novel Dragonwall (1990) in a cameo before getting an expanded role in Red Magic (1991). He would go on to appear in numerous Forgotten Realms novels up until Neverwinter (2011). He also made cameo appearances in the Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights series of video games.

In the fiction, Tam is a Red Wizard of Thay, an ambitious organisation seeking to use magic to conquer the world. Tam rose through the ranks to become Zulkir of Necromancy, one of the eight rulers of Thay, and in the process converted himself into a lich, a powerful undead sorcerer. Tam is noted for labyrinth, ruthless schemes designed to further his own power or that of Thay (which he sees as the same thing). He is highly cunning, and also not above striking alliances with outsiders (which, oddly, he mostly honours) to achieve his objectives. Tam's weakness is his hatred of being constrained in power, sometimes by the other Zulkirs of Thay who see him as too dangerous and ambitious. This sometimes reaches comical ends, with a bold Thayan plan who increase its power being derailed by adventurers hired by Tam who simply did not want a political rival to achieve a success.

Tam is one of the most popular D&D villains of them all and Hanmore is an accomplished actor who should play the character well.

RED DWARF rights split between its original creators

In an interesting move, it's been announced that the rights to venerable British SF sitcom Red Dwarf have been split between its two creators, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, as part of a legal agreement. This clears the way for the return of Red Dwarf to television and possibly its debut in other areas.

Red Dwarf celebrated its 35th anniversary last month. The live-action sitcom started airing in 1988 and depicted the misfortune of Dave Lister, probably the last human being alive in the universe. Lister is put into stasis as punishment for smuggling a pregnant cat aboard his mining ship, the gigantic Red Dwarf. Unfortunately, during his confinement the ship's crew are killed by a lethal radiation leak and the vessel's sentient AI, Holly, orders the ship out of the Solar system to prevent further contamination. Unfortunately, it takes three million years for the radiation to disperse and for Lister to be released safely. As well as Holly, Lister is soon joined by a holographic recreation of his dead superior officer, the mind-numbingly tedious and arrogant Arnold "Judas" Rimmer, and the last survivor of a humanoid species which evolved from his cat. Later seasons add Kryten, a service mechanoid rescued from a derelict spacecraft, and occasionally Kristine Kochanski, Lister's ex-girlfriend whom, in a parallel universe, survived instead of him.

The show aired six seasons in rapid succession from 1988 to 1993, becoming one of the biggest shows on British television. Co-creators and co-writers Grant and Naylor split up their partnership after Season 6, and Naylor returned (first with other collaborators, then solo) to produce two additional seasons in 1997 and 1999. Naylor was then side-tracked into trying to make a movie which never came to fruition, so returned with a three-part special in 2009, followed by new, full seasons in 2012, 2016 and 2017. The latest bit of Dwarf to air was a TV movie, The Promised Land, in 2020.

In 2021 it was revealed that Naylor had either been fired or forced to resign from Grant Naylor Productions, the production company he had set up with Rob Grant to produce the show. Although Grant had left in 1993, the show had continued with his permission as a co-director of the company. The reasons for Naylor's departure were disputed, with Naylor claiming he'd been forced out and Grant claiming that work had been underway on two further TV specials with Naylor slated to write. Grant subsequently confirmed that he was planning to return to the franchise to write for the first time since a 1996 spin-off novel.

Today's agreement suggests that both Naylor and Grant will proceed with different Red Dwarf projects, potentially both involving the original castmembers. The cast themselves, now all in their late fifties and sixties, have expressed doubt on how long they can keep playing their roles, leading to speculation that the future of Red Dwarf may lie in a possible reboot, maybe on a streaming service. A previous attempt to adapt Red Dwarf to the American market in 1993 resulted in two pilots which never made it to series, but the show's longevity and the increased American demand for streaming product may tempt them to revisit the idea.

Whether this means that the two previously-planned TV movies involving the original cast can now go ahead is unclear.

Wednesday, 8 March 2023

STARFIELD acquires (probably) final release date

Bethesda Game Studios has confirmed the (probably) final release date for Starfield, their massive space-based roleplaying game. The game will launch on 6 September 2023.

Set in the early 24th Century, Starfield will see the player take control of a space pilot recruited by Constellation, the last human organisation interested in large-scale, interstellar exploration. Some unusual artefacts have been discovered on the outskirts of known space, sparking the possibility of contact with intelligent alien life. But to discover the secrets of those artefacts, the player will have to navigate interstellar politics, mine barren moons for resources and align (or fight) against myriad factions.

Similar to the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series, Starfield will feature a vast open world to explore, this time expanding across 1,000 planets and moons in more than a hundred star systems. Players will be able to explore, mine, build their own settlements, engage in combat and travel from planet to planet on a starship that they can customise or replace. Players can even design new ships from scratch and then fly them into combat. Companion characters acquired through the game can serve as crewmembers on the ship. The game will also feature the traditional epic main quest and a plethora of side-missions and randomly-generated objectives. The game should play like Fallout 4 bolted onto a somewhat more limited version of Elite: Dangerous.

The game will launch on PC and Xbox Series X/S.

Saturday, 4 March 2023

New ALIEN movie starts shooting next week

A new Alien movie starts shooting next week, which is kind of surprising given how little fuss has been made about it.

The new Alien film is being produced by Ridley Scott, but it will actually be directed by Fede Alvarez (the reasonably well-received 2013 Evil Dead remake) from a script by his usual collaborator Rodo Sayagues. The two also worked on the 2016 horror movie Don't Breathe and last year's Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboot.

The film stars Cailee Spaeny (Pacific Rim: Uprising, Mare of Easttown) and Isabela Merced (Dora and the Lost City of Gold), with David Jonsson, Archie Renaux, Spike Fearn and Aileen Wu also on board.

Remarkably, we know almost nothing about the film, such as where it fits in the Alien timeline. The plot synopsis is decidedly vague:

"In this ninth entry in the immensely popular and enduring film series, a group of young people on a distant world find themselves in a confrontation with the most terrifying life form in the universe."

That does seemingly confirm the film has no crossover with Noah Hawley's incoming Alien TV show, which is set on Earth, possibly after the events of Prometheus but before Alien itself.

The synopsis is also interesting for listing eight prior Alien films: Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992), Alien: Resurrection (1997), Aliens vs. Predator (2004), Aliens vs. Predator 2: Requiem (2007), Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017). In its recent licensing and canon announcements, the two Aliens vs. Predator films were omitted from the Aliens canon (as suggested by Prometheus, which seemingly contradicts the events of the AvP movies) and Fox have indicated that regard the Aliens, Predator and AvP franchises as three distinct timelines and continuities.

The synopsis does sound a little disposable as a story concept, but it will be interesting to see what comes of it. The film is presumably targeting a 2024 release window.

Friday, 3 March 2023

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY to end with fifth season in 2024

CBS and Paramount+ have announced that streaming show Star Trek: Discovery will end in 2024 with its fifth season.

The news is not a huge surprise, with Paramount+ moving to cut original programming budgets in pursuit of greater profitability, and the show having a fairly hefty price tag attached to it. The show kicked off in 2017 with a reported budget of $7 million per episode and costs have only increased since then. The show was at the vanguard of a whole new generation of Trek shows, with live-action series Picard (also ending after its currently-airing third season concludes) and Strange New Worlds following, along with animated series Lower Decks and Prodigy.

The show had a difficult genesis, with co-creator Bryan Fuller originally envisaging an anthology show that would dramatically shift locations, casts and even time periods from season to season, extending across different eras of the Trek universe and timeline. However, when that idea was shot down for cost reasons and Fuller's responsibilities to American Gods increased, Fuller chose to move on, leaving co-creator Alex Kurtzman to put together a new writing team (ironically, Fuller was later dismissed from American Gods due to massive budget overruns).

The early critical response to Discovery was somewhat tepid, but improved over its first four seasons. The show's position as a prequel set some ten years before the time of the original Star Trek series, but looking centuries more advanced, was contentious amongst fans, as was its embracing of both a darker and more emotional aesthetic than previous Trek shows, and problems fitting into established continuity. However, the show did nab a Hugo nomination for an early episode and the critical assessment of the show did improve after it moved a thousand years into the future.

The show was also a commercial success, being cited for almost single-handedly driving impressive subscriber growth for the CBS All Access platform in its early days, before its recent rebranding as Paramount+.

It also appears that the decision has been made to delay the final season into 2024, with some reshoots due to take place later this year, possibly an indication that the decision to end the series after five seasons was made late in the day and these reshoots will turn a season finale into an overall series finale.

With Picard also ending, this leaves the Star Trek franchise with one sole live-action show on air. Apparently other shows are under discussion, two live-action projects apparently under series consideration. One would pick up after the events of Picard and would feature a mix of new and established characters in the early 25th Century, and could draw upon characters from Picard, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager. The second is unclear, but could be either the much-discussed Section 31 series starring Michelle Yeoh (which may be complicated by Yeoh's much higher profile following a series of successful movie roles) or a Starfleet Academy series, possibly set in the Discovery time period of the 32nd Century. It is believed that there have also been discussions around a new series or mini-series featuring the return of Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway. She has already returned to voice the character in Prodigy, but is apparently keen to explore the character again in live-action.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds will air a second season later this year, with Lower Decks also getting a fourth season in 2023 and Prodigy expected to start airing its second at the end of the year. The timescale for any new shows joining the stable is unclear.

Thursday, 23 February 2023

Embracer Group strikes new deal with Warner Brothers to make new LORD OF THE RINGS movies

In a fairly neat solution to what was threatening to become a legally complex entanglement of rights, Lord of the Rings movie rights-holders Embracer Group have forged a new deal with Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema to create new feature films derived from the novel.

Not Amazon but you get the idea.

The Lord of the Rings film rights were acquired from the Saul Zaentz Company by New Line in 1997 to create a feature film trilogy based on the novel. Peter Jackson directed this trilogy to tremendous acclaim, which was released from 2001 to 2003 (New Line's parent company is Warner Brothers). Warner Brothers teamed up with MGM, who owned part of the film rights to The Hobbit, to produce a prequel trilogy based on that novel ten years later. Last year, the film rights were set to lapse, reverting back to the Saul Zaentz Company. Warner Brothers had put an animated motion picture, War of the Rohirrim, into production and claimed this was enough to satisfy their legal requirement to get a film into production before the rights were due to lapse. The Saul Zaentz Company disagreed.

Whilst legal arguments were being thrashed out, the Saul Zaentz Company suddenly sold their Lord of the Rings-related rights to the Embracer Group, the Swedish multimedia mega-corp which has been hoovering up various comic book, video game and board game companies for the past decade. Exactly why Embracer would step into such a legal minefield before it had been resolved seemed unclear.

Except, of course, it is now clear. Embracer simply created a new deal with Warner Brothers and New Line, immediately resolving all legal questions and allowing everyone to move forwards with new projects.

What those projects might be is unclear. Today's statement includes a note that the companies have no interesting in mounting a remake of Peter Jackson's seminal movie trilogy. There are also rights complications with The Hobbit (MGM, now owned by Amazon, retain some of the rights to the project) and also a question over TV rights, since Amazon struck a separate deal with the J.R.R. Tolkien Estate to launch their first TV show, The Rings of Power, which launched last year to a mixed reception. There has been some suggestion that Warner Brothers might be able to create a Lord of the Rings-derived TV series as long as it stayed within even stricter legal boundaries than Amazon, but it's not been clarified what those could be.

Any further projects will have to derive from The Lord of the Rings alone, and probably in the cinema. It's possible that film-makers will tap the Third Age for more ideas of a show, maybe focusing on ides like the settling of the Shire, the war with the Witch-King of Angmar, the adventures of the young Aragorn or possibly picking up a story with some of the surviving film characters several decades on from the movie trilogy. Such projects will have to survive the withering scorn and cynicism of fans watching out for a cash-grab exploitation of Tolkien's material.

In the meantime, The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim hits cinemas on 12 April 2024, whilst Amazon's Rings of Power is currently shooting its second season for a 2024 debut.

Wednesday, 22 February 2023

BABYLON 5 celebrates its 30th anniversary

Seminal space opera television series Babylon 5 has celebrated its 30th anniversary. The show's pilot movie, The Gathering, aired for the first time on 22 February 1993.

Babylon 5 ran for five seasons, notching up 110 episodes, seven TV movies and 13 episodes of a spin-off series, Crusade, between 1993 and 2007. It also generated a huge number of tie-in books, comics and roleplaying games, as well a video game that was - still bafflingly - cancelled when it was 95% complete.

The show was mainly set between the years 2257 and 2262 and depicted the misadventures of the crew and diplomats on board Babylon 5, a massive space station designed to serve as a sort-of United Nations in space, between the borders of five major powers and numerous smaller ones. Babylon 5 was purposefully designed by its creator, J. Michael Straczynski, as a "novel for television," with one pre-planned story unfolding over five years. This level of serialisation was unusual at the time, although not completely unprecedented. It was more unusual that the story arc was planned out in some detail ahead of time, though.

After a rough opening season, Babylon 5 hit its stride in its second and third seasons, with both years winning Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation. A near-cancellation in Season 4 saw Straczynski wrap up the main story arc last few episodes, but a late renewal allowed him to end the story as planned, albeit with a somewhat more spun-out fifth season than originally envisaged.

Babylon 5 broke the mould not just for serialisation, but also for its pioneering use of CGI to depict all of its visual effects. Most contemporary space shows still used very expensive models. As the show continued, its use of CG became more innovative, extending to the creation of virtual sets and all-CG aliens interacting with human actors; commonplace today but remarkable in the mid-1990s. B5 also used the Internet in a pioneering way, with Straczynski taking advantage of the Internet to discuss behind-the-scenes trivia and worldbuilding information with eager fans.

Despite its innovative structure, excellent pacing and outstanding cast, the show teetered on the edge of cancellation throughout its run, and has never had more than a dedicated, cult audience. The show also suffered appalling attrition among its main castmembers, making a continuation unfeasible. A Babylon 5 reboot project has instead been gestating at the CW for well over a year, although recent sweeping changes at the network and a retreat from drama commissions makes that project now unlikely to proceed (although the possibility remains of it finding a home elsewhere).

Wednesday, 8 February 2023

Atlanta: Season 3

Paper Boi and his manager, Earn, have arrived in Europe for a tour and are soon joined by their friends Darius and Van. What should be a straightforward series of gigs becomes increasingly weird and convoluted, whilst Earn has a series of vivid dreams about what appear to be horror stories or alternate realities. Outside of the comfort zone of Atlanta, the group find themselves adrift.

Atlanta is a show that defies easy definitions. The project, headed by Donald Glover in collaboration with his brother Stephen and visionary director Hiro Murai, flirts with a standard setup where Glover plays the under-achieving cousin of a rising rap star, and manages to talk him into letting him become his manager. Shenanigans ensue. But the show undercuts, subverts or often just flat out ignores its own premise on a very frequent basis, dropping most of the cast to focus on one character, or forgetting its alleged status as a comedy-drama to instead turn into flat-out existential horror. In its first two seasons the show navigated these fluctuations with ease and verve.

For its much-delayed third season (arriving four years after the last), Atlanta flips the last vestiges of its format out the window. The gang are now in Europe, as Paper Boi's latest tour takes in Copenhagen, Amsterdam and London, among other cities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, even this is not as straightforward as it could be as Paper Boi experiences the worst trip of all time, Earn has to interrogate a suspected phone thief, Darius inadvertently destroys his favourite restaurant in London and Van experiences an identity crisis in Paris.

These voyages into the surreal - and they are even surreal by Atlanta's elastic standards of reality - are meticulously-crafted, intelligent slices of drama, comedy and horror intertwined with the show's traditional verve. But there are also only six episodes of them, in a ten-episode season. The show dedicates the remaining four episodes to almost completely stand-alone anthology stories.

The first is a flat-out horror, as a young boy's teacher mistakenly identifies him as being the victim of child abuse at home and he gets cycled into the care system, with decidedly unpleasant results. In the second, white Americans who are the descendants of slave-owners are forced to pay reparations to the descendants of their slaves, resulting is a seismic shift in society, and one white man rails against the new system. In a third episode, a white couple are completely reliant on their Trinidadian nanny are inconvenienced by her death, but baffled when their son asks to go to her funeral. This draws them into the life of someone they never really knew and barely ever thought about. And in the final story, a mixed-race, white-presenting high schooler is incensed when he loses out on a scholarship because of his appearance, leading to a questionable strategy for retaliation.

These four stand-alone episodes are each impressive - Three Slaps may emerge as Atlanta's creepiest instalment - and delve into themes the show has tapped into before, but in a freer way when they are detached from the show's normal cast and continuity. The Big Payback goes as far as taking place in a fantastical alternate-timeline. And all four episodes are hinted to be unusually vivid dreams that Earn is having during the European tour. It doesn't really matter since Atlanta has only a passing interest in making itself even vaguely realistic (remember this is a show which once featured an invisible car for the sheer hell of it). Instead, the stand-alones enhance the themes of the rest of the series, dealing with class, ambition and the complexities and hostility of interracial relations in America (and elsewhere). That they are brilliantly-written and directed is taken as read, but some may bemoan the limited screentime we have for our regulars; the last episode is almost a one-hander for Van (who herself is absent from most episodes), meaning that Earn, Darius and Paper Boi sit out a full half of the season.

That sounds churlish to the point of ridiculousness - who, by its third season, is watching Atlanta for a conventional narrative with a regular cast? - but there is also a slight sense of queasiness this season, of unease beyond the show's norm. The show is at its boldest and most experimental here but sometimes it feels like the experiments don't always pay off. Paper Boi being suckered into helping a company avoid corporate fall-out for its racism feels predictable, and the normally-affable Darius spends most of the season in a surprisingly dark place. The show complicating its (normally) most likeable character is a good move, but making him as dislikeable as they do here (particularly when he just bounces on Paper Boi, leaving him to the night from living hell) feels like a misstep. Van also spends most of the season on an extended strange journey separate to the rest of the characters, which feels initially disappointing - Zazie Beetz is the show's ultimate weapon of a performer, often floating around the fringes of episodes until she becomes the focus, when she absolutely kills it - but does pay off in the very clever finale.

Atlanta's third season (****½) is its boldest, strangest, weirdest, most scattershot and possibly patchiest. Perhaps you can even call it disappointing, in the same way that finding £500 on the street is disappointing after finding £600 the day before (twice!). But it's also maybe the most interesting and weirdly experimental of what is already an interesting and experimental show. The season is available to watch on Hulu in the USA and Disney+ in the UK.

Sunday, 5 February 2023

The CW will not develop any pilots for 2023-24, likely ending BABYLON 5 reboot development

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the American channel CW has effectively abandoned the development of new, original drama programming. It will not pick up any new pilots for the 2023-24 season and may only renew three of its existing shows for next year (only one, All American, has been announced). For genre fans, this likely means the end of any chances for the Babylon 5 reboot project to move ahead at the channel.

The CW has spent many years as a relatively scrappy underdog, putting out a number of successful mid-budget shows like Supernatural and The 100 and a whole slate of DC Comics-adjacent shows like The Flash, Arrow, Superman & Lois and Legends of Tomorrow. These shows failed to turn a profit in first run, but did form a highly attractive package that was re-sold to streamers like Netflix for huge sums of money. Ill-advisedly, the CW terminated this deal to try to use its shows to push out its own streaming options as part of HBO Max. However, it was nowhere near as successful as the Netflix deal, putting the CW on the back foot. In early 2022, the CW was sold to Nexstar Media Group who immediately pivoted hard towards cheap reality programming and overseas imports. Ten CW scripted originals were cancelled immediately, with more following since.

The CW had previously picked up development rights to classic space opera series Babylon 5. The original series had run from 1993 to 1998, in first-run syndication and then on the TNT channel. 110 episodes were produced across five seasons, also generating six TV movies and a spin-off show, Crusade, that was cancelled after half a season. The show had not garnered a massive audience, but it had done solidly and turned an immense profit given its very low production costs (achieved through pioneering the use of CGI). The show had also picked up significant critical acclaim and multiple awards, as well as an enthusiastic cult audience. The show had pioneered serialised storytelling in dramas in an age of stand-alones and reset buttons, with writers including Damon Lindelof, the Wachowskis and George R.R. Martin citing it as an influential work. A partial HD remaster of Babylon 5 generated positive press coverage in early 2021 and introduced a new audience to the series.

Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski confirmed that a Babylon 5 reboot was in development at the CW in September 2021. Due to the changes at the CW, the show's development was unusually put on hiatus for a year after it was not picked up in the previous renewal window in February 2022. However, the latest news seems to make the reboot an even more unlikely project then it already was.

The project may not be entirely dead. The new CW is looking for more adult shows to appeal to older viewers, especially if they can be delivered for under $5 million per episode. A legacy show with name value aimed at adult viewers with a reasonable overseas resale potential might still interest the new regime, but it would now appear to be a slim shot indeed, and almost certainly not happening this year.

Additionally, it's possible another streamer or channel takes on the project, although it is unclear which ones would be interested.

Thursday, 2 February 2023

Death Stranding (Director's Cut)

A mysterious, apocalyptic event called the Death Stranding has ended the old world and ushered in the new. In this world the barrier between life and death has become vague and fluid. It is possible to breach the walls of death and visit the Beach, a purgatory-like stepping stone between this world and what comes after. But the Beach is feeding into our world, allowing dead souls, BTs or Beached Things, to manifest. Where BTs and living souls come into contact, there is annihilation, vast explosions called voidouts. These voidouts have obliterated much of America, leaving behind desperate islands of humanity, large numbers of survivors clustered in cities called Knots and singular preppers in remote shelters.

Sam Porter is recruited by Bridges, a company working closely with the nascent government called the United Cities of America. Their goal is to use the chiral energy of the Beach to reunite America, forming connections between cities and shelters until a single civilisation once again spans the continent. Sam is sent on a mission to complete the connections and find his missing adopted sister, reportedly held prisoner by extremists in a city on the remote west coast of the continent, cut off by a sea of tar. In this quest Sam is helped by a group of allies bearing oblique codenames and with varying motives. His closest ally is BB, a "Bridge Baby" (ghost-detecting quasi-foetus) wired into his suit's sensor systems, allowing him to sense and avoid BTs. But Sam and his BB are also being hunted by a mysterious figure, a soldier from the Beach who will stop at nothing to recover what he believes is his.

Death Stranding is a game that defies easy summary. It's a game which melds its decidedly familiar gameplay and format - an open world game you can traverse on foot or by vehicle, doing various missions for various people by means including stealth and combat - with the most obtusely deranged set of worldbuilding you've encountered this side of Steven Erikson's Malazan fantasy series, except even far more metaphysically weird. To play Death Stranding is to take an acid trip to a world where Darryl from The Walking Dead, Actual Guillermo Del Toro's Face and the baby from 2001 are FedEx couriers working to save America from Antimatter Ghosts you can shoot in the face with your own bodily excretions. To play Death Stranding is to play a game which asks, nay, demands that you pause it at least once per hour for the first five hours to ask, "what in the name of galloping fucknuts is going on?"

Of course, the obtuseness of the early game eventually gives way to understanding a bit more what's happening thanks to some of the longest infodumps in human history, in any medium. The game's characters are only too keen to tell you what is happening, using a battery of original Proper Nouns, holographic maps and charts. Essentially it's a narrative that has its weirdly obtuse cake and then also eats it from a plate of...frosty exposition? Death Stranding's worldbuilding and story eventually end up being nowhere near as inaccessible as some have made out, there's just a lot of it, and the story and worldbuilding are very front-loaded to the point that the game's opening few hours resemble wading through the treacle of lengthy cutscenes interspersed by tutorial-like bursts of gameplay before it gets out of its own way and lets you start playing the damn thing properly.

Once Death Stranding stops Lars von Triering out of your monitor, what emerges is a game almost disappointingly familiar: an open-world game where you walk around doing jobs for people. Jobs in this game consist almost exclusively of taking packages containing needed goods from one location to another. Early in the game you are limited to walking everywhere, and unlike almost literally every other video game in existence, the game has zero truck with you being able to carry three tons of inventory in an invisible container somewhere. Instead, every single item in the game has a physical presence and you have to account for it. This can end up with your character - Sam Porter Bridges, played by Norman Reedus from that zombie show and also that motorcycle show - comically staggering around with four feet of containers looming above his head, a mixture of cargo and survival gear. The more cargo you have, the easier it is to trip over and drop and damage it, which is no good for your client. You have tools to help you, such as ladders to ascend difficult spots or bridge streams and minor chasms, and ropes to ascend or descend sheer cliffs, but these are fairly limited at the start of the game.

Managing your cargo is a big problem initially, but Death Stranding immediately, and subtly, starts giving you ways of adjusting to the problem. The early settlements are relatively close to one another and it becomes easy to work out where to drop stuff off, double back to pick up other cargo, and then deliver stuff more efficiently. The game gives you a powered trike early on, but, amusingly, no way to charge it, so a bunch more deliveries lead you to gaining the ability to build field generators. Then the trike allows you to get around faster and carry more stuff, but soon you bump into new limitations.

The game also amps up the threat level quickly. You find your first batch of BTs early only, ghostly entities who don't just kill you, but first force you into a mid-tier-annoying boss fight. Detecting BTs with the help of your eerie demibaby companion becomes second nature, and avoiding them is relatively easy, though of course it's also easy to become overconfident and blunder down a hillside into a pack of them at the worst possible moment. Later on BTs become a more trivial threat once you learn how to weaponise your excretions into explosive weapons, but of course, not long after that the games starts feeding in more capable variants of BTs which are more difficult to defeat.

You also have human enemies to face, starting off with bandits called MULES (there's a ton of acronyms in this game and also absolutely zero explanation of what any of them stand for, which I kind of respect) and then advancing up to terrorists known as Homo Demens, whom everyone calls demons. MULES are annoying, beating you up with electro-poles and nicking your stuff, whilst the demons are lethal, happy to blow you away with automatic weapons and grenades. With both enemy types, the normal videogame instinct is to get some heavy hardware and liquidate them, but in the world of Death Stranding, this is a Very Bad Idea. Killing someone turns them into a BT; when a BT eats a passing live human, such as a MULE or terrorist when the camp respawns, it basically triggers a matter/antimatter explosion which effectively vaporises the game world. Or, more succinctly, every corpse you create in the world turns into a ticking time bomb which will eventually result in a game over screen. You can avert this by dragging the bodies either to an incinerator or into the Tar Sea, but these are at opposite ends of the game map and are very inconvenient to reach without a vehicle and still quite time-consuming with one. Just not killing people is the easier option. Since this game comes from the creator of the Metal Gear Solid series, there are fortunately myriad options for knocking people unconscious instead.

Death Stranding occupies an interesting space between the open-world action-adventure game and a narrative-heavy story game (not dissimilar to the previous game from the same team, Metal Gear Solid V). The narrative is very dense and complex, and taking a 20-hour break from the story to focus on side-missions won't exactly make it any more straightforward. On the other hand, taking long breaks from Yet Another Guillermo Del Toro Metaphysical TED Talk to just chill out hiking over some hills to some laidback Iceland rock might be very appealing.

The open-world elements are refreshingly stripped back: there is no skill tree, no pseudo-RPG ability unlocks (just occasional boosts to your carry capacity or stamina bar as you complete missions) and a bare handful of usable vehicles. Everything that is in the game is hyper-focused on making your life easier or the gameplay more interesting. Side-quests are almost uniformly a variation of "deliver something from Point A to Point B," with occasional missions directing you to raiding MULE camps or into BT-infested ruins to retrieve some vital piece of equipment. Occasionally missions direct you to unlock more information about your crew of supporting characters, and there's even escort missions, although these oddly involve strapping another human being to your back and lugging them around rather than them just, y'know, walking around themselves.

There is light crafting in the game, but the main building exercise in the game involves constructing, or reconstructing, a massive road network that spans the world map. Building this road network involves a ton of resource-collecting, with metals and ceramic either gained from completing quests, gatherable from allied outposts at regular intervals or lootable from MULE or terrorist camps. It's wholly unnecessary: vehicles with solid battery packs and building occasional generators in remote areas or shelters with garages for repairs will get you across the whole map without a problem. But even spanning a small corner of the map with roads to allow you fast transit between certain shelters can eliminate a lot the slower-paced travel from the game. How far you decide to go with that kind of activity is up to you; if you focus on the story and the story alone, you can finish Death Stranding in well under 30 hours. But if you set out to rebuild the road network solo and do every side-mission and get every achievement, you can expand this out to around 80 hours or even more with ease.

The game also features an interesting multiplayer mode. You never encounter other players in the game world, but your game data can synch with everybody else's on the server, so that other player's structures appear in your game and yours can appear in others'. Resources will flow into road repairs between your game world and others', dramatically speeding up the construction process. You can post signs warning other players about avalanches or raiders up ahead. You can dump unneeded equipment or weapons at a shelter for another player to pick up when it appears in their game. It's all rather interesting and ties into the game's central message about connectivity. Although you can also completely turn if off if you wish.

Death Stranding is built around this thematic idea of connectivity. As you traverse the game world, you bring isolated communities back into touch with one another through the medium of your role as a parcel delivery guy. The presumably unintended parallels to the COVID pandemic - the game was originally released just a few months before lockdowns became commonplace in early 2020 - are eerie. The theme is explored in interesting ways, although also fairly on-the-nose ones. Main character Sam is a loner with no interest in making friends at the start of the game, but through his connection with uncanny baby-thing BB and a host of bewilderingly damaged other characters, he becomes part of an extended family. It's both so cliched as to become saccharine, but also oddly effective.

It helps that the cast is both ridiculously stacked and extremely well-played. Reedus brings his familiar had-it-with-this-crap everyman exasperation from The Walking Dead and is a sympathetic lead (especially the way his stoic demeanour with others gives way to a goofier side when he's alone...well, apart from the player and BB). The Leftovers' Margaret Qualley is excellent as your main "man in the van," Mama, and Lea Seydoux gives an offbeat performance as Fragile, a fellow deliverer with an intriguing approach to next-day deliveries from anywhere on the continent. The Bionic Woman herself, Lindsay Wagner, makes for an excellent President of the United Cities, and Tommie Earl Jenkins and Troy Baker are having almost too much fun the ludicrously-named Die-Hardman (!) and Higgs, the antagonistic leader of the demons. Mads Mikkelsen lends the project fantastic gravitas as the enigmatic Cliff. Guillermo Del Toro and Nicolas Winding Refn only lend their likenesses rather than their voices to the roles of Deadman and Heartman, with Jesse Corti and Darren Jacobs picking up the vocal slack.

More amusing is the battery of more random cameos among the preppers and shelter-keepers you encounter, with manga artist Junji Ito, film directors Edgar Wright and Jordan Vogt-Roberts, game designer Sam Lake (best-known for his work on Remedy games like Alan Wake and playing the original Max Payne) and Video Game Awards founder Geoff Keighley all cropping up in small roles. Conan O'Brien has a particularly random limited appearance as an aggressive cosplayer. These cameos should feel massively incongruous, given the melancholy, more serious attitude the game cultivates elsewhere, but they end up feeling effective.

The gameplay loop of delivering parcels, unlocking new tools and vehicles and travelling to a new area is very effective early on, and there's no denying that the story and world, although dense and complex, are also original and interesting. The heavy de-emphasising of lethal combat is interesting, as is the decision to let you still indulge in it despite the risk of just blowing up the entire game world. Action is rare but satisfying when it takes place. The graphics are mostly excellent (although the relatively limited draw distance by modern standards does feel weird), the music is absolutely outstanding, and the game handles its tonal variation from moments of intense action to outright horror to melancholy loneliness very well.

There are problems though. The game frontloads exposition and introducing its bewildering world into the first few hours, meaning it does not put its best foot forwards and can give a very misleading view of what the game itself is like. Vehicle handling is okay on roads but pretty awful off it, and the twentieth time your truck bounces over a boulder half its own size with no problem only you get stuck on a pebble the size of a hedgehog will make you start to wonder if any of the developers have even seen an off-road truck, let alone used one. It's also hard to argue that the mountain biome can be deeply frustrating to navigate, at least until you unlock the use of ziplines and figure out the hidden paths trucks can use.

But these negatives are, for the most part, manageable. Death Stranding (****½) may be obtuse and strange for the sake of being strange, but it's also uniquely its own thing. Its atmosphere is haunting, its ideas original and its utter rejection of most modern gaming conventions (and, indeed, its not-always-subtle satirising of them) refreshing. This is not a game for everybody, but if you lock into its headspace, Death Stranding will be a memorable, fascinating gaming experience. The game is available now on PlayStation 4 and 5, and on PC. A sequel, DS2, is currently in development.

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Sunday, 29 January 2023

THE SIMPSONS renewed for two more seasons, to bring it over 800 episodes aired

Fox Television has renewed The Simpsons for two more seasons, bringing the total number of episodes to 801. The move extends The Simpsons' place as the longest-running, scripted non-soap in American television history.

The Simpsons began airing as its own series on 17 December 1989, having previously run as a series of animated shorts on The Tracy Ullman Show from April 1987. An almost immediate smash hit, The Simpsons rapidly became an American and then a global phenomenon, with "Bartmania" sweeping the world in 1991 and 1992. The show enjoyed remarkable critical and commercial success for approximately a decade, but was criticised for a critical decline beginning in the early 2000s. The franchise's success was reinvigorated with the release of The Simpsons Movie in 2007 (which saw the return of many classic writers), but since then the show has again been accused of a decline. However, the last two seasons (Seasons 33 and 34) have had significantly better reviews than those before them for many years.

The renewal will extend The Simpsons' run to 36 seasons and 801 episodes, confirming the show as the longest-running American animated series, the longest-running American sitcom and the longest-running American primetime scripted series (which excludes soap operas), both in number of episodes and seasons.

It should be noted that internationally The Simpsons isn't quite top of the tree. The British science fiction sitcom Red Dwarf began airing in February 1988 and continues to (intermittently) produce new episodes, although its number of seasons (12) and episodes (74) is vastly more modest. Still, it is (technically) a longer-running sitcom. Fellow British sitcom Last of the Summer Wine also chalked up more years by running for 37 years from 1973 to 2010, although the vagaries of British television production saw it chalk up only 31 seasons and 295 episodes.

More notably, British SF drama series Doctor Who has aired 39 seasons across 60 years (1963-89, 1996, 2005-present), totalling 871 episodes. With only 4 episodes expected to air in 2023 and 9 in 2024, whilst The Simpsons will air at least 22 episodes per year, The Simpsons will require several more seasons beyond this renewal to overtake Doctor Who.

How long The Simpsons can continue is unclear. Castmember Julie Kavner (Marge Simpson) is now in her 70s and Dan Castellaneta (Homer) and Nancy Cartwright (Bart) are both in their mid-60s. Although the show has replaced several actors who have sadly passed away or left over the years, it has never tried to replace one of the "big five" in the cast, which also includes Yeardley Smith (Lisa) and Hank Azaria (Chief Wiggum, Moe and many smaller roles), who are both 58.

The Simpsons has also seen a linear decline in ratings over the years, but this is not out of keeping with overall downward trends in first broadcast network shows. The show has also become a perennial strong performer on streaming service Disney+, although with so many episodes available, it does not require new episodes to be continuously produced to maintain that appeal.

Fox relies heavily on its relatively cheap animated sitcoms to maintain audiences at a time when it is finding it harder to invest in more expensive, live-action material. It has also renewed fellow animated sitcom powerhouses Family Guy and Bob's Burgers for two seasons apiece, taking the former to 23 seasons and the latter to 15 seasons.

Other networks are also extending their animated output: FXX is producing a 14th season of Archer, whilst Comedy Central has renewed South Park as far as a 30th season due to air in 2027.

Friday, 27 January 2023

THE LAST OF US renewed for a second season at HBO

HBO have renewed their TV series The Last of Us for a second season. The not-completely-surprising news came after the show aired its third episode and recorded impressive audience growth week-on-week, as well as enormous critical praise.

The Last of Us is an adaptation of the critically-acclaimed video game franchise of the same name, which spans two video games (released in 2013 and 2020 respectively) and assorted expansions. Both game and series see humanity devastated by the release of a fungal plague which transforms infected human hosts into aggressive monsters. Joel (Pedro Pascal in the TV series) is given a mission to help smuggle a young girl, Ellie (Bella Ramsay) to safety after it is discovered she is immune to the infection.

Showrunners Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (creator of the video game) have confirmed that they only plan to adapt the two games and their assorted DLC, but it may take two additional seasons to fully cover the events of the second game.

The remaining six episodes of the first season will air through 12 March.

Wizards of the Cost scraps plans to revamp the OGL and moves D&D to a Creative Commons licence

It's been a bruising few weeks for Wizards of the Coast and parent company Hasbro, whose plans to monetise the never-more-popular Dungeons & Dragons brand by removing the Open Game Licence 1.0 ran into fierce opposition from fans and fellow businesses alike.

Wizards initially offered a partial compromise, allowing existing OGL products to remain on sale and removing plans for licence charges for successful products using the D&D rules, but confirming they were pressing ahead with eliminating the OGL 1.0 for new products moving forwards. Creators would instead have to sign up to the OGL 2.0, which was still significantly more restrictive than the old 1.0 model that company had employed since 2000, and changes to the rules pertaining to the virtual tabletop (VTT) market would remain in place, effectively forcing online players to use Wizards' own D&D Beyond service with a subscription fee.

However, the creators of the OGL 1.0 voiced doubts that the original OGL could be legally revoked (they'd deliberately included language suggesting not), several companies mulled over legal challenges and multiple other RPG companies announced the creation of a rival open licence, which soon saw a large chunk of the tabletop RPG industry come on board.

Today Wizards of the Coast announced a comprehensive climbdown. They will no longer try to revoke the OGL 1.0, they will no longer try to impose their changes on the burgeoning virtual tabletop (VTT) market (with the 1.0 remaining in place, that's no longer possible) and they are in fact scrapping the entire OGL 2.0 initiative in favour of moving to a Creative Commons licence instead. They are releasing the rules for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition via a Systems Reference Document for use with either licence. Effectively, this is a return to the status quo, with a more comprehensive 5th Edition SRD as a result.

Wizards likely decided on the climbdown after seeing over 40,000 subscribers abandon their D&D Beyond platform in the space of three weeks, as well as a burgeoning campaign to boycott the forthcoming Dungeons & Dragons movie, Honor Among Thieves, which launches on 31 March. The film is the opening salvo of a broad-spectrum D&D assault on the multimedia space, with Hasbro keen to bring the franchise to film and television, as well as reinforcing its presence in video games (the highly-anticipated Baldur's Gate III launches later this year).

Whilst likely to be welcomed by those whose livelihoods were threatened, the climbdown is unlikely to erase the memory of Wizards' behaviour. Other companies have benefitted, most notably Paizo who make the rival Pathfinder fantasy RPG which was previously the dominant tabletop RPG from 2009 to 2015 before D&D supplanted them. Paizo reports selling out of all of its physical stock of its core rulebook in the last fortnight and is rushing reprints to meet renewed demand. Some other RPG creators are also reporting increased sales. Work on the rival open gaming licence is likely to continue.

Wednesday, 25 January 2023

Halo: Season 1

In the year 2552, the planet Madrigal is in open rebellion against the United Nations Space Command, discounting reports that other human worlds are fighting again alien invaders. However, the aliens, the Covenant, attack the planet and butcher the inhabitants of a small town. An elite unit of Spartan super-soldiers, Silver Team, arrives but uncovers a bigger mystery related to alien obelisks and the single survivor of the colony, Kwan Ha. A battle of wits and wills begins between the Covenant and the UNSC, with the commander of Silver Team, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, proving to be unexpectedly important to what is to come.

It's been over twenty years since the Halo franchise first appeared and, even being charitable, it's fair to say that the series is long since past its peak. Naturally, this is the moment that a Halo TV show chooses to arrive, just as WarCraft and Assassin's Creed both received adaptations long after their moments of cultural dominance had passed, and as a result were met with indifferent shrugs.

The Halo TV show takes the route of being a prequel to the events of the video games, set even before the events of Halo: Reach, but it is also explicitly set in an alternate timeline to the games. Characters, ideas and factions are present who do not exist in the games, and most of the game characters, races and stories have been tweaked for their presentation on screen. Just about the only thing that hasn't been significantly redesigned is the hardware. Weapons, armour, aliens and spacecraft all arrive with very solid approximations of their appearances in the video games.

As with the games, the story focus on John-117 (The Wire's Pablo Schreiber), better known as Master Chief, a Spartan super-soldier who is one of Earth's best hopes in the war against the Covenant, an alliance of several alien races united by religion. Unlike the games, Master Chief is just one of an ensemble cast and we spend a lot of time with other characters: Dr. Halsey (Natascha McElhone), John's effective mentor and mother figure; Cortana (Jen Taylor), a newly-created artificial intelligence with loyalty issues; Soren-066 (Bokeem Woodbine), a former Spartan turned insurrectionist leader; Commander Keyes (Olive Gray), a UNSC officer and scientist; Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha), a rebel on the planet Madrigal; and Makee (Charlie Murphy), a human captured by the Covenant as a child and indoctrinated in their religion. We also spend a fair amount of time with the other members of Master Chief's Silver Team, particularly Kai-125 (Kate Kennedy).

The first season divides its story into several strands. In one, we learn more about the creation of the Spartan programme, particularly the way it inhibits the emotional development of the soldiers, and how Master Chief (and, later, Kai) deal with that revelation. There is some redundancy here - having two characters undergoing the same emotional journey is odd - but the actors handle the story well. Master Chief also learns more about his childhood and how he joined the Spartan programme. Dr. Halsey's dubious morality and willingness to overstep certain bounds to achieve her goals is present and correct from the video games, although this version of the character is a bit more obviously a bad 'un from the start, and her arc lacks nuance.

In a second strand we follow Kwan Ha's story as the last survivor of a massacre into becoming a potential rebel leader under Soren's tutelage. This story is competently executed, and both Woodbine and Burn Gorman as the villainous Vinsher Grath are having more fun than anyone else in the cast, but it's connection to the rest of the story and the setting feels thin. It's almost worthwhile for the final showdown with Grath, where Burn Gorman chews scenery with delicious aplomb.

In a third strand we follow the journey of Makee from Covenant stooge to discovering life among other humans. This story feels fairly random: the Covenant of the early games would never recruit or use a human to work for them (it would go against their entire religious ethos) and the feeling emerges that they had to give the Covenant a human representative to save on the CGI budget (the Covenant CGI is both excellent and fleeting) more than because there was a good story purpose for her existence. This is frustrating as Charlie Murphy gives a good performance (a lot of it in an nonexistent alien language), and deserves better material.

The season's pacing is uneven, dedicating entire episodes to some stories so entire sub-casts of characters don't appear, with even Master Chief sitting an episode out. To be fair, the games have also shown the Halo universe can survive without the big MC (the two Halo Wars games, Halo: Reach and Halo: ODST do without Master Chief as well), but given the main story focus here is on Master Chief's activities prior to the war for Reach, him sitting out a fair bit of the story is a bit of an odd choice. Having him spend most of the time he does appear without a helmet, even in extended action sequences, is an even odder one.

The thing is, all these choices could be borne if the end result was great, but instead it has to settle for being...kinda okay, I guess? The actors are all very solid, many of the ideas are fine (apart from the human Covenant member) and the show does have an ace up its sleeve with its action sequences, which are extremely well-handled. The battle sequences in the first and last episode genuinely feel like movie setpieces, and smaller action scenes throughout the rest of the series are decent. A bone-crunching internal conflict between Spartans genuinely sells the idea of these guys being human+ and you don't want to get in their way. These moments give us glimpses of a considerably better show that could have been created from the same ideas.

The show could have also tightened up its pacing a bit. There isn't really enough story to fill nine episodes and six to seven would have probably been better. There's also a lot of faffing around with ideas and elements that aren't very well handled, and for every change to the backstory and premise to make things more practical and affordable, there's another two or three that feel like change for change's sake. Even for a casual appreciator of the video games like myself rather than a deeply-invested megafan, a lot of these changes feel pointless.

The first season of the Halo TV show (***) ends up being okay. It's watchable, with some good performances and some outstanding action sequences. But the show is a bit flabby, the changes to the source material are mostly unnecessary and the show has that sheen of base-level, dull competence that a lot of modern TV shows have acquired. A second season could be a lot better, assuming they focus on the war for Reach and the search for the Halo itself. Right now, the show is okay but could do a lot better. The show is available to watch on Paramount+ worldwide.

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