Sunday 31 December 2023

RIP Bryan Ansell, WARHAMMER legend

News has sadly broken that veteran British game designer Bryan Ansell has passed away at the age of 68. Ansell was the co-founder of Citadel Miniatures and the boss of Games Workshop in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly the period when Warhammer 40,000 was launched. Ansell was a hands-on boss and worked on books and material for both the Warhammer fantasy and 40K universes.

Ansell was born in 1955 and became a key fan of science fiction, fantasy and wargaming at a young age. He sculpted his first miniature - a guardsman of Gondor - in 1966 after reading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. A few years later he acquired a pyrogravure heat pen and set about converting Robin Hood figures produced by Airfix into hordes of orcs.

Ansell further developed his artistic skills as a teenager and began sculpting models for wargaming, earning him a job at Skytrex and then Conquest Miniatures. At Conquest he worked on the Age of Joman range. He was inspired to start his own company, Asgard Miniatures, in 1976, along with Paul Sulley and Steven Fitzwater. Whilst at Asgard he met and worked with Jes Goodwin, Nick Bibby, Tony Ackland and Rick Priestley. In 1978 Priestley and his friend Richard Halliwell created the wargame system Reaper for Tabletop Games, with a second edition following in 1981.

Ansell left Asgard in 1978 to found rival miniatures company Citadel Miniatures, with funding from British gaming company Games Workshop. Citadel Miniatures began churning out large numbers of generic figures for use with roleplaying games, particularly Dungeons & Dragons (to which Games Workshop held the exclusive European distribution rights). The company initially focused on fantasy figures but also branched out to science fiction, producing figures for the SF roleplaying game Traveller and then the TV series Doctor Who.

Bryan Ansell was notable for not just his sculpting skills but also his business acumen, and he noted that from the sales patterns that people were buying some of the more generic figures - orcs, dwarves, elves - in large numbers, enough for entire regiments. This suggested they were playing full-on wargames with the figures, not just the very small skirmishes allowed for by roleplaying games. The suggestion was made for Games Workshop to create their own wargame, drawing on their immense catalogue of figures rather than having to invent things from scratch. Based on their work on Reaper, Ansell brought in Priestley and Halliwell to design a new game that could make use of their existing range. The result was Warhammer, published in 1983 and an immediate success story. A second edition followed in 1984.

Ansell contributed creatively to the worldbuilding for Warhammer by working on the Chaos and Orc factions, and created the infamous Chaos Gods for the setting.

In 1983 Ansell founded Wargames Foundry as a spin-off company run by his father after his retirement.

Ansell instigated a buyout of Games Workshop in 1985 and an effective merging of Games Workshop and Citadel Miniatures into a single company. Ansell oversaw a series of sustained growth for the company, first through the expansion of the Warhammer line and then the introduction of Warhammer 40,000 in 1987. Like Warhammer, the 40,000 line drew on GW's immense pre-existing SF figure line and even modifications of the fantasy line, sometimes literally taking orcs and removing their swords and bows in exchange for guns. As the line became hugely successful in its own right, bespoke models were introduced.

Ansell also redirected all Games Workshop offices and entities to be based in Nottingham. As the years passed, ex-GW employees would found their own companies nearby, leading to shared vendors and resources, creating an area known as the "Lead Belt," the centre of the British (and arguably European) warming miniatures scene.

Towards the end of his tenure Ansell saw the further expansion of the company, with the profile of their games raised by a strategic alliance with MB Games which resulted in the board games Hero Quest (1989) and Space Crusade (1990), as well as their first forays into video games. However, Ansell also directed the company to drop its work with other games and focus almost all of its creative efforts on the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 brands, with its associated White Dwarf magazine also becoming solely focused on the company's own games rather than the hobby at large. This move was criticised by some employees and some critics in the hobby at large.

Ansell left Games Workshop in 1991 to focus on his family and returning to his first love, of sculpting miniatures. He established Guernsey Foundry in 1991, transforming it into a new incarnation of Wargames Foundry in 2000. The new company specialised in historical figures with some SF elements. Bryan retired from the company in 2005, but mismanagement led to him returning in 2012. A new company, Casting Room, was set up to help ease the problems and bring in new models. A further company, Warmonger Miniatures, was set up in 2015 to sell exclusively fantasy figures.

Bryan Ansell was an integral part of the Games Workshop story, and his combination of creative and business inspirations led to the company's mass expansion in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the creation of Warhammer 40,000. He left an indelible mark on the British wargaming industry, and can be credited with transforming it, turning into a world-leader in the miniatures field. He will very much be missed.

Ciaphas Cain: The Emperor's Finest by Sandy Mitchell

Having narrowly escaped from an encounter with the feared necrons, Commissar Ciaphas Cain finds himself assigned as liaison to the Reclaimers Space Marine chapter, noted for their formidable weaponry, immense bravery and sometimes over-eager interest in technology. When rebel insurgents launch an uprising on Viridia against the local government, Cain fancies they are in for an easy campaign against an inferior foe. Of course, it's not long before genestealers abound, and Cain finds himself stuck with an overeager noble lady keen to ensnare him in political games, and a hellbound pursuit of a rogue hulk through deep space.

The misadventures of Ciaphas Cain are probably among the most purely entertaining in the Warhammer 40,000 canon. Whilst most books focus more on the "grim darkness" and "only war" bits of the setting, Sandy Mitchell's signature series instead tries to lighten things up, at least relatively. Commissar Cain believes himself to be blustering, cowardly and too eager to run at the first sign of trouble, but is constantly manoeuvred by fate into positions where he has no choice but to apparently-eagerly run to the front lines or into the most dangerous area possible, often surviving by the skin of his teeth and sometimes unexpectedly saving the day in such an outrageously public way. By this seventh novel in the series, things have gotten ludicrous enough that Cain is now getting full honour salutes from squads of Terminator Space Marines for his bravery (roughly akin to an angel saluting a particularly tenacious chimpanzee).

Of course, Cain's complaints about his cowardice and self-serving needs do seem to be contradicted by his actual proven ability to get tasks achieved and his impressive combat skills, and his constantly-present (via footnotes of varying degrees of bewilderment) editor-confessor, Inquisitor Amberly Vail, seems unsure about to what degree his "confession" is actual modesty, or even some psychological defence mechanism to rationalise a deeper-seated need to face death on a daily basis. This deep in the series it's a still a mystery (one I doubt will ever be solved), so it's probably best to move on and enjoy the ride.

The Emperor's Finest is, like most books in the series, fairly short but also packs a ton in. The book has three distinct sections, which less-disciplined authors might have tried to expand into a whole novel by themselves. The battle for Viridia is entertaining, with Cain acting as a liaison between the superhuman Space Marines and the ordinary human defenders, and getting into a Warhammer 40,000 meetcute (which means moderate flirting over the roaring exchange of bolter fire) with the governor's daughter, Mira. A slightly more interminable middle section follows as the Reclaimers try to track down the origin of the tyranid infestation, a space hulk cheerily named the Spawn of Damnation, whilst Cain tries to both win the respect of the Reclaimers and fend off Mira's attempts to lure him into political intrigue. The final section sees Cain, Jurgen (Cain's aide, think of the product of an unholy union of Baldrick and Gregor Clegane) and the Reclaimers let loose aboard the space hulk and finding things are far more complicated then they first imagined.

Mitchell delivers this with typical panache, with moments of humour and levity mixed in with above-competent action sequences and Vail's wry footnote interjections. However, the formula feels a tad off this time around. After a promising start, Mira never really develops into an interesting character and her storyline feels a bit rote. Cain's interactions with the Reclaimers and their crewmembers also hold a lot of promise but again are not fleshed out well: Cain's achievements in the book (from an outside POV) are highly impressive but I'm not sure he's done enough to earn the Reclaimers' overwhelming respect at the end. Cain is also at his best when in circumstances with lots of options for his natural self-serving tendencies to emerge and the reader to be left in doubt about his selfish/brave motivations. Here he spends a third of the book trapped on a space hulk with his back to the wall and no choice but to proceed to survive, which makes for a solidly tense adventure but doesn't service the character's best attributes.

Still, the book is short, to the point, has good action and some doses of light humour that the setting rather badly needs at time, so it's hard to complain too much. The Emperor's Finest (***½) delivers the required entertainment, but doesn't go above and beyond like the better books in the series. The novel is available now as part of the Ciaphas Cain: Saviour of the Imperium omnibus, along with its two succeeding novels and several short stories.

Ciaphas Cain Novel Timeline

919.M41 (40,919 CE): Fight or Flight (Novella #1). Cain meets Jurgen, deploys with the 12th Valhallan Field Artillery to Desolatia IV.

924: Death or Glory (Book #4). Perlia campaign.

928: Echoes of the Tomb (Short Story): Adeptus Mechanicus mission, fights necrons.

928: The Emperor’s Finest (Book #7). Cain joins Reclaimer Space Marines, aids in Space Hulk retrieval mission.

931: For the Emperor (Book #1). Gravalax campaign, formation of the 597th Valhallan Regiment.

932: Caves of Ice (Book #2): Simia Orichalcae campaign.

932: Duty Calls (Book #5): Periremunda campaign.

937: The Traitor’s Hand (Book #3): Adumbria campaign.

942: The Last Ditch (Book #8): Nusquam Fundumentibus campaign.

c. 951-954: Choose Your Enemies (Book #10): Ironfound campaign.

992: The Greater Good (Book #9): Siege of Quadravidia.

c. 993: Vainglorious (Book #11): Eucopia engagement.

999: Cain’s Last Stand (Book #6): Thirteenth Black Crusade. Chaos assault on Perlia, Cain comes out of retirement to lead defence.

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Friday 22 December 2023

Blade of Dream by Daniel Abraham

Garreth Left is the heir to one of the merchant families of Kithamar, but their economic prospects have become dire. An alliance with a faction outside the city provides salvation, but at a price that Garreth is not willing to pay. Elaine ab-Deniya Nycis a Sal is a princess of the city, the daughter to the heir apparent to the throne. Moving into the palace for the first time, she uncovers mysterious secrets that she should - but cannot - let go. Elaine and Garreth's destines entwine with those of a city watch captain and the ruler of the city's criminal underground, and a tumultuous year continues to turn around the great city of Kithamar.

The Kithamar Trilogy is Daniel Abraham's latest fantasy work. The co-author of the Expanse space opera series and the solo author of the Long Price Quartet and the Dagger and the Coin series, Abraham has long been praised as an author of character-based fantasy with interesting, original worlds and forms of magic. This trilogy takes a new approach, with three books set in the same city at the same time but involving different characters, sort of a fantasy version of Krzysztof Kieslowski's classic Three Colours film trilogy. Each story more or less stands alone but reading the whole trilogy results in greater understanding of the epic events unfolding under the surface: each book has a piece of the puzzle that becomes clear when all three are read.

Balancing this metaplot with the needs of the book at hand can be tricky, and the first book in the triad, Age of Ash, did not always succeed in doing so. It remains an excellent book but there was a greater feeling that you didn't have all the pieces of the puzzle. Blade of Dream is much more successful in crafting a compelling narrative on its own as well as working as part of a broader whole.

The story this time is perhaps a tad more traditional fantasy. Garreth is the young man unsure of his station and ambitions who rebels against the stifling destiny his family want to force on him. Elaine is the noblewoman likewise unsure of her station who has few friends she can trust, as opposed to those who want to take advantage of her station. They are thrust together by circumstances and find a new way forwards, through political intrigue, back-alley stabbings and full-on conflict between the city guard and a criminal organisation. Blade of Dream is literally a "higher" book than Age of Ash, taking place in the mercantile and royal districts whilst Age of Ash was more at home in the downmarket slums.

Blade of Dream certainly works as a far above-average example of a medieval (ish) city-set fantasy, but it's also a powerfully emotional book. Abraham delves into his characters' heads to craft very three-dimensional and interesting protagonists, and what drives and motivates them. I've occasionally mused that Abraham could be the closest author we have to becoming a natural heir of Guy Gavriel Kay, but that feeling is hugely intensified by this book. The traditional fantasy trappings could be dropped altogether and this would still work wonderfully as a character study. But those traditional fantasy trappings are here, and realised well with a compelling mystery and some fascinating worldbuilding.

Blade of Dream (****½) is an improvement on its forebear and marks this trilogy as Abraham's most mature and interesting work yet. The final novel in the trilogy, with the working title Judge of Worlds, is due out next year.

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Tuesday 19 December 2023

Amazon and Games Workshop sign agreement to develop WARHAMMER 40,000 projects for the screen

As reported a year ago, Amazon have announced a comprehensive alliance with British wargaming company Games Workshop. The deal will cover Games Workshop's popular Warhammer 40,000 science fantasy setting and will allow Amazon to develop multiple television and film projects based on WH40K games and novels, both live action and animated. Amazon have also confirmed that everybody's favourite geek-thespian, Henry Cavill, will play a key role in their projects as producer, creative overseer and actor in at least one of the properties.

Whilst previously Amazon and Games Workshop had merely entered into talks, those talks have now progressed to signed contracts.

Warhammer 40,000 is a multimedia science fiction/fantasy/horror franchise. Set almost 39,100 years in the future, the property depicts a time when humanity has successfully gone into space and colonised more than a million worlds scattered across our galaxy. Faster-than-light travel is only possible via the Warp, a chaotic realm wherein dwell the evil Chaos Gods. The influence of the Chaos Gods is felt on many worlds, with Chaos cults falling victim to their evil and undermining the Imperium of Mankind from within. Alien races such as the Orks, the Eldar, the Necrons, the Tyranids and the Tau also post threats of varying degrees to the Imperium. The Imperium itself is also not the best place to live, with millions of people dying every day in the service of the God-Emperor of Mankind, toiling in misery on mechanical Hive Worlds or dying in the service of the Imperium's vast armies and space fleets. Chief among the Imperium's defenders are the Space Marines, genetically-engineered super warriors in towering power armour.

The franchise began in 1987 as a tabletop wargame, which remains the biggest-selling property in the genre, but has since branched out to over 500 works of original fiction, including novels, comics, audio dramas, animated films and video games.

This isn't Hollywood's first rodeo in the grim darkness of the 41st Millennium. Four years ago Games Workshop agreed to option out the Eisenhorn series of novels by Dan Abnett with a view to developing a TV series to be helmed by Man in the High Castle and X-Files producer Frank Spotnitz. It is believed that Spotnitz held discussions with Amazon, whom he worked with on High Castle, but the project did not move forwards at that time.

Eisenhorn remains a reasonable starting point for the franchise, with a cast consisting of mostly human characters with only occasional appearances by the Space Marines (the signature faction of the setting) and daemonic forces. This is an easier entry point versus the total gonzoid epic war insanity of something like The Horus Heresy series.

It is also possible Amazon might look to develop a series based on Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts series, which features relatable characters belonging to the Imperium's regular human army, the Imperial Guard. However, both Amazon and Games Workshop may be keener for something that front-and-centres the Space Marines and other core factions like the Orks, Tyranids or Necrons.

Cavill is a noted Warhammer franchise fan. He's appeared in videos to discuss the lore and his love of painting Warhammer miniature figures, and spoken of his appreciation for several of the spin-off video games and novels. He has even corrected confused interviewers over the differences between the Warhammer and WarCraft universes.

Games Workshop, Amazon Studios and Vertigo Entertainment will collaborate on the first project, the details of which have yet to be revealed, with Cavill tapped to star and executive produce, as well as extending his advice over other projects in the franchise. Games Workshop and Cavill both appear to be keen for any adaptation to hew close to the source material and not deviate purposelessly away, which seemed to become a bone of contention between Cavill and Netflix over their work on The Witcher.

GW and Amazon have indicated they will spend the next year working on the details of the first adaptation, so it will likely still be several years before any project actually appears on-screen.

Monday 18 December 2023

RIP James McCaffrey, the voice of Max Payne

News has sadly broken that actor James McCaffrey has passed away at the age of 65, following a battle with cancer.

Born in Albany, New York, McCaffrey began acting on-screen in the late 1980s and by the mid-1990s had started being cast in leading roles. He starred in TV shows including New York Undercover, Viper, Swift Justice and As the World Turns.

In 2001 he was cast as the voice of video game character Max Payne, in the video game of the same name from Remedy Entertainment. Payne was the narrator as well as the star, and had more dialogue than everyone else in the game put together. McCaffrey's world-weary delivery, influenced by every hard-bitten detective noir story ever written, was pitch-perfect and won him an immediate legion of fans.

McCaffrey returned to the role for Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (2003) and Max Payne 3 (2013), and also had a cameo in the disappointing Max Payne movie (2008).

James McCaffrey (left) with Sam Lake (lead writer at Remedy and the face of Max Payne in the original game) and Matthew Porretta (the voice of Alan Wake) in November 2022.

McCaffrey later starred in Rescue Me as Jimmy Keefe and became a perennial guest star on American television and a reliable supporting player in films.

Remedy Entertainment continued their association with McCaffrey by casting him as Alex Casey, a fictional detective clearly based on Payne (whom they couldn't use for copyright reasons) in Alan Wake (2010). He returned to Remedy to play Zachariah Trench in Control (2019). He returned as two distinct versions of Casey in Alan Wake II just this year, winning acclaim for his performance. It was assumed he would resume the world of Max Payne in Max Payne Remake, an upcoming remake of the first two games from Remedy.

McCaffrey's gravelly vocal performances across two franchises will go down as some of the all-time great video game performances, and he will be missed.

Sunday 17 December 2023

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

Nine-year-old Tiffany Aching is serious and studious for her age, and has little truck with myths and superstition. When her brother is kidnapped by an evil supernatural force from another universe and she is offered an alliance with the Nac Mac Feegle, a species of diminutive-but-psychotic warriors, this offends Tiffany's worldview. But pragmatism wins out, and she has to reluctantly embark on an adventure.

The Wee Free Men is the thirtieth Discworld novel, and when you're thirty books into any series you might be forgiven for resting on your laurels a bit, especially when the previous one, Night Watch, is often cited as the best thing you've ever written. For Sir Terry Pratchett, this was not an option. Having experimented with a Discworld book for younger audiences, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, he decided to start a whole new sub-series within the wider Discworld framework that would be aimed primarily at younger readers.

Pratchett being Pratchett, this meant relatively little changes or compromises to his usual vision. Some of the very occasional double entendre gags are gone, the book is somewhat shorter than usual, but beyond that Pratchett didn't really censor himself at all. If anything, this is a more thoughtful, contemplative Discworld book than the norm, with some enjoyable setpieces interrupted by Tiffany's internal musings on life and her ambitions.

Tiffany is smart, curious and sensible, not given to recklessness but also having a strong moral centre. She may be a quintessential Discworld protagonist, being often the only sane person in the room and constantly wondering why selfishness and hatred even exist. She is cut from the same competence cloth as Granny Weatherwax and Samuel Vimes, but lacks their experience and cynicism. She is a well-drawn protagonist who has to overcome problems presented by capable enemies, rather than because she's holding an idiot ball (something many other writers could learn from).

What is impressive about The Wee Free Men is how much of it is told from within Tiffany's head: the Nac Mac Feegle are not given to in-depth dialogue (although they have a few bon mots of wisdom) and many of the other characters are evil, monsters, stupid adults or even less-communicative children. Just about the only person Tiffany can have a decent 1:1 conversation with is a sentient toad. This means we get to lock into Tiffany's thought processes and motivations in a lot of depth, which is refreshing.

Taking part in a hitherto-unexplored part of the Disc with almost no recurring characters (not even Death, making this the first Discworld novel that he skips out on), at least until the last chapter, The Wee Free Men also makes a viable on-roading point for the entire series. Technically the main villain did (briefly) appear in Lords and Ladies, but that is really not alluded to in the book so is not hugely important.

The Wee Free Men (****½) sheds a lot of the extended subplots that had started padding out the Discworld books around this time and is focused and entertaining, with a small but well-drawn cast of characters. It's funny, but intermittently, with musings on growing up and responsibility. For the first in a new, YA (or outright children)-focused series, it's surprisingly contemplative and thoughtful, and all the richer for it.

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

Thursday 14 December 2023

GOOD OMENS renewed for third and final season at Amazon

Amazon Prime Television have greenlit a third and final season of the Good Omens TV series, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and the late Sir Terry Pratchett.

The first season was released in 2019 and was a critical and commercial success, adapting the original 1990 novel. The second season was released in 2022 and saw Gaiman developing an original story based on some ideas he'd discussed with Terry over the decades. This third season will adapt a firmer idea that Pratchett and Gaiman had developed for a sequel novel but never gotten around to putting on paper.

Gaiman will once again serve as showrunner and executive producer, with production due to begin in Scotland in the coming months. David Tennant and Martin Sheen once again return to play the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale.

MURDERBOT DIARIES TV series greenlit at Apple+

Apple+ have greenlit a television adaptation of Martha Wells' science fiction book series, The Murderbot Diaries.

The series comprises seven works published to date: All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, Exit Strategy, Network Effect, Fugitive Telemetry and System Collapse. Network Effect and System Collapse are (short) novels, the other works are novellas.

The series depicts the adventures and misadventures of "Murderbot," a former assassin droid which has broken free of its programming and achieved sentience and volition. The droid now wants to do nothing more than be left alone to enjoy binge-watching TV shows, but it constantly finds itself drawn into human misadventures, eventually building up a number of recurring allies and enemies.

Apple+ have taken the step of ordering the TV version to series immediately (apparently the groundwork was laid a year ago but delayed by the writers' and actors' strikes). Producers Chris and Paul Weitz are also serving as showrunners, writers and directors for the series, with David S. Goyer serving as producer. Goyer's involvement may have helped the project land at Apple, as he is the current showrunner and executive producer on Foundation for the same streamer.

Chris Weitz has previous genre adaptation form, having directed the film version of Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass and was previously involved in an attempt to bring Scott Bakker's challenging Prince of Nothing trilogy to television. With his brother Paul, they worked on the American Pie movie series. Chris also co-wrote the Star Wars movie Rogue One.

Actor Alexander Skarsgard (True Blood, Succession) has already been cast in the lead role of Murderbot and production of the 10-episode first season is expected to begin in the next few months for a 2025 debut. It is unclear how many of the books will be adapted in the first season.

OTHERLAND TV series in development

A fresh attempt is being mounted to bring Tad Williams' cyberpunk-fantasy epic Otherland to the screen.

Platige Image, the production company behind Netflix's Witcher adaptation and anthology series Love, Death and Robots, and producer Mike Weber (who helped usher Wheel of Time onto Amazon), have teamed up to develop an adaptation of the series, which comprises four novels: City of Golden Shadow (1996), River of Blue Fire (1998), Mountain of Black Glass (1999) and Sea of Silver Light (2001).

The series is set in the near-future and depicts a world where virtual reality has become a reality, and an increasing source of entertainment and escape. The main character, Renie, is an instructor in virtual engineering in South Africa when her brother falls victim to a spreading illness which leaves its victims insensible. Wondering if there could be a connection between the illness and a new form of VR tech, Renie embarks on a dangerous investigation alongside her student !Xabbu (of the San bushmen), which leads them to the discovery of incredibly advanced VR worlds, hidden from the rest of the network. Eventually they discover a complex and unfolding plot spanning both the globe and decades of time.

Otherland's key appeal is the numerous virtual worlds located within its setting, including a version of World War I, a single house the size of a city and an alternate history in which the Aztec Empire crossed the Atlantic Ocean and successfully conquered Europe, allowing for a blend of history, fantasy and science fiction.

Otherland is Williams' second-biggest-selling series, after his epic fantasy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. The series was a solid seller in most countries, but it was a huge success in Germany, attracting wide acclaim and even an MMORPG video game adaptation from a German studio. It was previously optioned for adaptation in 2012 by Warner Brothers.

So far no showrunner or network/studio/streamer is attached, so this is the beginning of an attempt to bring the project to the screen. Given the creators' ties to both Netflix and Amazon, they have to be contenders to pick up the project.

Wednesday 13 December 2023

RIP Andre Braugher

In unexpected news, actor Andre Braugher has passed away at the too-young age of 61.

Born in Chicago in 1961, Braugher was interested in acting from a young age. He studied drama at Stanford University and then attended Juilliard, graduating in 1988. He quickly gained his first notable on-screen role, playing Thomas Searles in Glory (1989), about the first all-black regiment of the Union Army during the American Civil War.

He was then cast as Winston Blake, a young police detective, in five Kojak TV movies (1989-90). This would mark Braugher's first appearance as a police officer. Also in 1990 he placed the titular character in TV movie The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson, marking his first lead role.

In 1993 Braugher was cast as Detective Frank Pembleton, a Baltimore police officer in Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-99). Based on David Simon's book Homicide: A Life on the Killing Streets (1991), the show depicts the difficulties experienced by a Baltimore police unit in bringing order to the streets. The show had an ensemble cast, but Braugher was almost immediately cited as the show's breakout star due to his intense and sometimes unpredictable performance, winning an Emmy Award and a further nomination (as well as crossing over to sister show Law and Order). Braugher left after the sixth season and did not return for the seventh and final year, but did return for Homicide: The Movie (2000), a TV movie which became the show's finale. Homicide: Life on the Street is today seen as the template and forerunner of Simon's HBO shows The Corner and The Wire.

Following the end of Homicide, Braugher picked up roles on TV shows including Gideon's Crossing, Hack, Men of a Certain Age and Last Resort, as well as films including Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, The Mist and Salt.

In 2013 Braugher was cast in the other major, defining role of his career. He was cast as Captain Raymond Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2013-21), a taciturn police chief who takes over a fictional Brooklyn police department inhabited by eccentric officers. His role on the show won him four additional Emmy Award nominations. Braugher's taciturn delivery and deadpan humour won him legions of new fans, as well as generating countless Internet memes.

Braugher passed away on 11 December from an undisclosed, short illness. He is survived by his wife and three children. He will absolutely be missed.

Monday 11 December 2023

Happy 20th Birthday to BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (2.0)

On 8 December 2003, the Sci-Fi Channel aired a two-part TV movie based on Glen A. Larson's 1978 space opera, Battlestar Galactica. This new show had been preceded by very low expectations: none of the cast or crew of the original show was involved, and two previous reboot pitches which had been direct sequels to the original show had been cancelled in development. Redesigns of iconic ships and vehicles had annoyed the original fanbase, as had the "gender-swapping" of established characters like Starbuck and Boomer. However, early critical reviews were positive and some of the casting for the show, such as Edward James Olmos as the new version of Commander Adama (in the role played by Lorne Green in the original) and Mary McDonnell as the new President of the Colonies, seemed promising.

A promotional image for Battlestar Galactica's third season (2006-07).

The road to relaunching Battlestar Galactica had been a long one. ABC had commissioned Glen A. Larson to create the original show back in 1977, keen to jump on the bandwagon of space opera and impressive visual effects generated by the release of the original Star Wars movie. They even brought in John Dykstra, who had created Star Wars's special effects, to work on the show. Borrowing heavily from Egyptian mythology and Mormon theology, the show told the story of the annihilation of the Twelve Colonies of Man at the hands of a hostile alien race, the Cylons, consisting of cyborg leaders and fully-robotic soldiers. The last surviving human warship, the battlestar Galactica, leads a "ragtag fugitive fleet" in search of the mythical Thirteenth Colony, also known as Earth. Despite schmaltzy acting, the presence of cute kid and animal actors (including the still-bizarre decision to have a chimp playing a robot dog) and whiplash-inducing shifts in tone, the show built up a strong following for its impressive effects and its emphasis on family.

The show launched to enormous ratings, but these fell drastically over the course of the first season. Combined with the show's eye-watering cost, ABC decided to cancel it and resurrect it two years later as Galactica 1980, a much lower-budged show meant more to appeal to kids. Galactica 1980 holds a strong claim to be the worst TV show ever made (with the solitary exception of a flashback episode set during the original series timeline) and was quickly put out of its misery.

The original Battlestar Galactica had spectacular visual effects for 1978 but less impressive scripts.

Larson moved on to other projects, but always felt there was more mileage in the Battlestar concept. Richard Hatch, who'd played Captain Apollo on the original series, agreed, and with Larson's blessing undertook various attempts to relaunch the show. Successful novel and comic series followed through the 1980s and 1990s, and in 1998 Hatch produced a proof-of-concept video dubbed Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming. Ignoring Galactica 1980, this would have been a "next generation" concept picking up on the story twenty years later with the Galactica crew still searching for Earth with a whole new generation growing up in the fleet. Despite being popular at fan conventions, the idea did not find fertile ground with a studio. A year later Glen A. Larson started developing a movie concept which would have followed up on the fate of the battlestar Pegasus from the original series, but again this didn't get very far.

A much more serious attempt followed in 2000. Producers Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto were the hot flavour of the month in Hollywood for the success of their movie X-Men and Singer, a huge fan of the original Battlestar Galactica, was determined to get the show launched again. His concept was similar to Hatch's and would have been a next generation reboot. Fox TV signed on, but were somewhat sceptical that BSG's relatively small fanbase could help propel the show to a larger audience, especially as it was a continuation. Nevertheless, the project moved to within a few weeks production starting (including some early set construction and lots of concept art being produced) when Fox put all new projects on hold in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Fox were slow to get the show moving again, so when Singer and DeSanto left the project to focus on the next X-Men movie, Fox let the idea lapse.

Promotional artwork for Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto's planned Battlestar reboot (2001).

Universal Pictures, who held the rights to the original BSG, decided to push forwards with a new version of the show themselves. Whilst 9/11 had disrupted Fox's plans, Universal saw it as an opportunity to tell a very different kind of story. Critics of the original BSG - and even some fans - had felt that the original series had massively undersold the darkness and trauma that would have resulted from the destruction of twelve planets and billions of lives on the survivors. Universal asked producer David Eick to work on ideas for the new series, but the first directive was that this was going to be a page one rewrite and remake set in a new continuity. Eick decided he needed to bring on board someone who really understood science fiction, and in particular space opera, and called a writer he knew Ronald D. Moore.

Moore had cut his teeth as a very young writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which he'd joined in 1989 in its third season. He was just about the only staff writer to survive the chaotic third season into the fourth, and became a key creative lead on the show in its latter five seasons. When the show wrapped, he co-wrote the movies Generations and First Contact as well as moving over to Deep Space Nine for its third season, again playing a key creative role on that show. When Deep Space Nine wrapped in 1999, he moved over to Star Trek: Voyager but immediately found a much more restrictive creative environment. Moore was in particular frustrated by the fact that the starship Voyager was still clean and pristine despite being trapped on the other side of the galaxy with very limited chances for resupply or repairs. His feeling was that the show should have been darker, more challenging and engaged in more morally murky discussions about the morality of the Federation when a ship was put in a difficult position. The showrunners disagreed, feeling that cookie-cutter philosophising and constantly hitting a big red reset button at the end of every episode was the way forwards instead. Moore duly quit, going to work first on Roswell at the WB and then Carnivale at HBO.

Executive producer and showrunner Ronald D. Moore on the hanger set of Battlestar Galactica.

He was still working on Carnivale when Eick called. Moore had watched Battlestar when it first aired and seen great promise in it, but had also disliked the campy and sillier elements of the show (such as the cute kids, robots and the "casino planet" in the pilot). He rewatched the pilot movie and realised there was a lot of strength in the basic premise and agreed that it could be reworked in a post-9/11 environment for greater emotional impact. He agreed to write a new pilot for Universal's subsidiary, the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy). This ballooned into a (relatively) high-budget three-hour mini-series which could also work as a backdoor pilot for a full series.

Moore penned the pilot and oversaw some elements of production, including exercising his desire for a slightly darker aesthetic than Star Trek and to have a completely new (for SF) way of shooting the action with handheld cameras, even the space scenes. Director Michael Rymer immediately locked into what Moore was thinking of and his directorial style immediately became a hallmark of the show. Moore also wanted a more understated and less symphonic way of doing music for a space series and lucked out when Richard Gibbs also picked up that idea and ran with it. A young composer named Bear McCreary assisted Gibbs on the pilot.

Edward James Olmos as Commander William Adama and Mary McDonnell as President Laura Roslin.

Casting proved interesting but controversial. Moore wanted distinct actors with gravitas and experience, but was aware that it was very unusual for producers to get their first choices. In this case, he wanted Edward James Olmos for Adama and Mary McDonnell for Roslin and was flabbergasted when both said yes, sold on the quality of the scripts. The casting department also scored a steady series of successes when they found a lot of fresh young talent for the series, from Jamie Bamber for Apollo to James Callis for Baltar and, most iconically, Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck and former model Tricia Helfer as Caprica Six. Established fans of the show were furious to learn that both Starbuck and Boomer (to be played by Grace Park) had been changed from male characters to a female one for the show and some of the original castmembers agreed with them: Dirk Benedict (who played Starbuck in the original show) scathingly referred to the new character as "Stardoe".

For visual effects, the team at Zoic were called in to produce the huge amount of CGI needed for the mini-series. Zoic had just come off the back of Joss Whedon's newly-cancelled Firefly so the commission was good news for them. The CG team included many veterans of both Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine, who relished on rendering effects on a new, more powerful hardware and having the ability to design lots of new ships, although honouring the designs laid down in the original show.

The Battlestar Galactica mini-series was critically acclaimed on its release. The reviews were excellent across the board, with a lot praise for the actors, direction and acting, and the ratings were very high, setting new records for SyFy. It was an easy choice to commission a full first season, especially once Ron Moore confirmed he would drop Carnivale (which was being torn apart by corporate politics and would be cancelled after its second season) to move over as full-time showrunner. When the first season proper debuted a year later, with 33 (the episode that won the show a Hugo Award), it was even better.

Of course, the show could not quite sustain that early acclaim and its ending would become one of the most divisive in television history, but that's another story. Battlestar Galactica did for space-set science fiction what Game of Thrones later did for epic fantasy, making it grittier, more real and more resonant with a wider audience previously dismissive of the art form. It's a shame we haven't seen more space opera shows come along in its wake, but finally, with shows like The Expanse and Foundation, it seems that promise has come good. Battlestar Galactica remains, despite its debatable quality later on, one of the strongest SF TV shows ever made, and essential viewing for any fan of the genre.

Note: an earlier version of this article was published here.

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

Friday 8 December 2023

Baldur's Gate III

An illithid spaceship crashes on the banks of the River Chionthar, far to the east of the great city of Baldur's Gate. Seven survivors stumble forth, former prisoners of the illithids, the much-feared mind-flayers. These seven individuals have been infected with mind-flayer tadpoles, which will slowly burrow into their brains and turn them into new illithids. But something is holding the tadpoles at bay. The companions learn that they may be able to escape their doom, if they can work out their differences, join forces and defeat the greatest threat to Faerûn and the Sword Coast to appear in generations.

Baldur's Gate III - now officially the Game of the Year™ - is a massive, sprawling, roleplaying game set on the Dungeons & Dragons world of Toril, better known as the Forgotten Realms. It is the sequel to Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, two of the greatest roleplaying games (and in fact video games full stop) of all time, but also notes that since it's almost a quarter of a century since the last game in the series game out, it requires zero previous knowledge of the series to enjoy. It arrives at a perfect moment, with the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop roleplaying games at an all-time high, and goodwill for developers Larian Studios still riding high from their previous two games in the Divinity: Original Sin series.

It would be churlish to say anything other than Baldur's Gate III is an overwhelmingly impressive game. It's enormous, with a playthrough of the main story and most side-quests taking around 100 hours, but an exhausting playthrough to find every bit of loot, gold and lore taking easily half again as long. The game can be played solo or as a co-op online game. You can create a new character from scratch, play as one of the six existing "origin characters" (who otherwise become your major NPC party-members), or play the "Dark Urge" character, who has a murderous drive which ties more directly into the previous games in the series. Creating a new character, you can play as one of numerous species, classes and sub-classes, with a wide array of feats, abilities and combat moves to develop and employ. There's a lot of game here, but the game is forgiving enough that you can muddle through even with "suboptimal" builds, and it does a good job of teaching you what you need to do as it goes along.

I mean, she's not wrong.

Baldur's Gate III feels bizarrely and positively schizophrenic: the game has AAA+ production values, cutscenes, voice-acting, graphics, visual effects and polish (at least for the first half of the game) to shame the latest Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed mainstream title, but it's also deeply geeky. The turn-based combat and the need for tactical positioning, mastery of buffs and debuffs and knowledge of how Concentration-based spell effects work all feel better suited for hardcore indie titles aimed squarely at insiders and grognards. The game's most startling success is bridging these two audiences, creating a game with the richness and depth of many of the classic CRPG titles but the mainstream accessibility and appeal of the most polished AAA action games.

The game isn't truly an open-world title, instead being set across one very large map in each of the three acts, plus a couple of side-maps related to them. Each map will still take a while to simply explore, and are packed with puzzles, enemies, potential allies, caves, loot and mysteries. Many events pertain to your current situation but others are incidental side-quests. Each act has its own major storyline: Act I focuses on a conflict between a goblin army and a druid grove which is also hosting a large number of tiefling refugees from the nearby city of Elturel; Act II is set in the mist-shrouded lands around Moonrise Towers, where the Harpers are planning a strike to retake the fortress from the evil warlord who controls it; and Act III takes the party to Baldur's Gate itself, where dubious shifts in governance mask a foul conspiracy unfolding both above and below ground. It sometimes feels like the game could have been a trilogy made up of three ~30-hour games which would have still been incredibly rewarding, and getting them all in one title for one price is an insane act of generosity on Larian's part. For the record, Baldur's Gate III is substantially longer than all three Mass Effect games combined.

No, it's not that one.

The game's narrative is complex, with the struggle to overcome the mind-flayer tadpole munching on your cerebellum tied into the mystery of why it hasn't already succeeded. Trying to remove this threat leads you into some very strange places. But you are also one of seven characters in the same boat, and each one of your companions - Astarion, Gale, Karlach, Lae'zel, Shadowheart and Wyll - has their own immense amount of backstory and baggage to deal with. Astarion is a vampire spawn who yearns for vengeance against his abusive former master. Gale has a ticking magical time bomb inside him and emotional damage from a relationship with the Goddess of Magic. Karlach is infused with an Infernal Engine that grants her strength but is also slowly killing her. Lae'zel is a githyanki with a severe attitude problem who is trying to serve her people the best way she can. Shadowheart is a brittle worshipper of Shar, the Goddess of Shadows and Darkness, but also has a good heart that seems at odd with her calling. Wyll is a warlock tied to a dubious, demonic patron. Each one of these characters and stories is well-drawn and enacted, with outstanding voice acting. Many of the game's finest moments come from interactions with and between your companion characters, as you move from dysfunctional-at-best allies to more of a found family.

That's not going too far into the other characters you meet along the way, people whom you can turn into powerful allies by helping their cause, such as rescuing the druid Halsin from the goblin camp or saving the thieves' guild of Baldur's Gate from being usurped by a rival operation. Many of these storylines are also highly engaging.

Combat is tactically satisfying, but - and this is a relief - not quite as puzzle-focused as the Original Sin games. In those games, incredibly tough battles were really puzzles which could only be unlocked through the use of oils, traps and explosives. Baldur's Gate III still has many of those elements, but they are more optional and instead combat is more reliant on the tactics you yourself develop through experimentation. This is much more satisfying and enjoyable.

Given the game's immense scale, its epic scope, its strong storytelling, outstanding characterisation and immaculate presentation, this must be a clean sweep, surely? An immediate five-star classic?

"This guy seems trustworthy."

Not quite. Baldur's Gate III's incredible first impression is slowly soured by a number of problems (some solved by the large number of patches and hotfixes since the game's launch four months ago, some not). None of these are fatal, but combined they do remove some of the sheen from the game.

The first is that the game's launch was technically problematic. The first half of the game was almost flawless, but the second half saw gradually escalating crashes, graphical errors, quest triggers misfiring, occasional random deaths and massively tanking framerates (especially when reaching Baldur's Gate itself, one of the most detailed and densest fantasy cities ever depicted in a video game). Many of these were fixed, but some issues remain: wonky physics, occasionally vanishing items which you are trying to pick up and cutscenes abruptly ending as the game can't work out what scene to play next (cutscenes are dynamic and depend on, sometimes, hundreds of choices you have made through the game).

This leads into a second problem in that Baldur's Gate III bills itself as being fully reactive to your game choices, so if you want to surprise-attack a major antagonist halfway through his evil plan speech and yeet him into a lava pit, you certainly can try. The problem is that it's rather easy to trip the game up in this way: in Act I I snuck into the goblin fortress from a side-tunnel rather than infiltrating via the camp outside, and in Act II I stumbled across the Gauntlet of Shar before finding Moonrise Towers. So, twice, I did major parts of the game's storyline in the opposite order to the way the game expects. Twice, the game failed to adequately respond to this, with characters making reference to things I had not done and people I had not yet met, cutscenes not really making sense and major parts of the story being shut off to me without much forewarning or the ability to do anything about it.

The game can also be extremely odd in what it tells you to do, or is possible: at the end of Act I you are told you have to proceed either via a mountain pass or the Underdark to reach Moonrise Towers. But, in fact, you can simply do both. In fact, you really should do both, as major storyline events for your companion characters take place in both locations. Following the game's directions literally can simply cut you out of large amounts of content if you are not careful.

Another issue is caused by the game's structure. As you pursue your myriad quests, they start to draw to conclusions deep into Act III, and they then climax in rapid succession, which is what you'd expect. But this means that the game can wind up putting five very tough boss fights one-after-another in the latter part of Act III, which ended up being a bit too much and left the actual final battle of the game feeling a bit undercooked in comparison. The game hints at a better structure earlier one, when Shadowheart's story really climaxes in Act II but gives her a meaty epilogue early in Act III. Wyll's story can also be brought to an early conclusion in Act III. Spacing out the companion characters' stories more evenly would be a better idea (and it may be possible on a replay to approach things somewhat differently).

Baldur's Gate III also cannot help but suffer a little in comparison to its earlier forebears; its music is notably nowhere near as good (BG3's soundtrack perks up with the excellent faux-opera accompanying your confrontation with a very powerful enemy near the end of the game, but is mostly generic) and - utterly bafflingly - its UI is sometimes clunkier. Identifying weapons and items in your inventory can be fiddlier, and things that can smoothly be done in one click in Baldur's Gate II now take two or three. BG2 has real-time combat that can be effectively made turn-based through the use of options, whilst BG3 only has turn-based combat, which sometimes kills the game's pacing when facing off against a bunch of dramatically weaker enemies whom you are absolutely going to rinse regardless. Baldur's Gate III's rogue's gallery of enemies also feels a little flat: the most charismatic and intimidating enemy in the game is seen off in Act II and those left behind are tiresome second-stringers. None of Jon Irenicus' powerful gravitas or Sarevok's mad-dog energy here (well, very little of it). I'm also now a little bored of big RPGs in which something weird is happening inside your head and is going to kill you unless you do the main quest (for a genre that utterly despises railroading, the video game versions of pen-and-paper RPGs are awfully fond of doing things that would risk a DM getting ostracised in real life).

The final criticism is also not so much of a bug but a feature for a lot of people: Baldur's Gate III is a lot and I found myself only really able to enjoy the game with my brain switched full on, paying maximum attention and in the zone. This is not a calm or gentle game to chill out to, like, say, Starfield. With its immense checklist of things to do and people to see and monsters to kill, BG3 occasionally risks feeling more like work than relaxation. Of course, for those who love number-crunching, story-tracking and optimising builds, this will be a huge appeal rather than a possible weakness.

Baldur's Gate III's weaknesses are not insignificant, especially cumulatively, but they ultimately cannot derail the game's immense achievements: mostly good writing, strong character work, intriguing combat, gorgeous graphics and best-in-class voice acting. Baldur's Gate III (****½) has rewritten expectations on how complex, challenging and layered a video game can be and still be a huge crossover smash hit, and it may be some considerable time before we see a game that has as much success.

The game is now available on PC, PlayStation 5 and, as of today, Xbox Series X and S.

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