Thursday, 27 October 2016

Doctor Strange

Stephen Strange is one of the best neurosurgeons in the world, until a car accident sees his hands crushed. Strange tries everything to heal his injury and eventually, broke and desperate, he travels to Kathmandu. In a sanctum called Kamar-Taj he meets the Ancient One, a sorcerer who defends Earth from mystical and spiritual threats. Extremely reluctantly, she agrees to take on Strange as a student. He proves a quick servant, but his hunger for knowledge raises awkward memories of a previous student, Kaecilius, who turned to evil. When Kaecilius mounts a surprise attack, it is left to the inexperienced Strange to face him.

Doctor Strange is the fourteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and has one of the less-enviable tasks in the canon: it has to introduce the entire mystical, spiritual and magical side of the Marvel Comics universe to the movies, which have so far explained everything through hyper-advanced science. But by this point the MCU is absolutely over-brimming with confidence and Doctor Strange struts onto screen with almost as much swagger as the title character when he is introduced performing brain surgery to 1970s pop music (because that's just how rad he is).

In fact, Doctor Strange is a near-pitch-perfect popcorn movie. It knows it's not an Avengers, Civil War or even a Guardians of the Galaxy which is going to drag in massive crowds through bombast and slick team banter, and, like last year's similarly fun and chilled Ant-Man, it sets out to have a good time. It establishes Strange - played with the requisite charisma and arrogance by Benedict Cumberbatch - as brilliant but consumed by hubris. It has fun casting him down to his lowest ebb, getting him to Nepal and into a series of training montages with Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor before he is ready to go fight villain Mads Mikkelsen in a mind-bending series of fights in alternate realities that out-Inception Inception about twenty times over.

For a movie dealing in the strange and mystical, the plot is surprisingly light and straightforward, the fight sequences are well-staged and the presentation of magic as a tangible force of nature is both different and well-done (and is actually slightly reminiscent of how it was handled in last year's WarCraft movie). At under two hours the film doesn't outstay its welcome and it handles its cliches with charm. The effects are also splendid: the Inception-aping scenes of New York folding in on itself are amazing, but there's also a brilliant homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey and the film's crown jewel, a fight sequence in a street where time is flowing backwards, with people un-dying and things un-exploding all around the characters. It's a brilliant, clever and original visual effect.

The film also holds back the best for the ending. If the Marvel movies have had a key weakness, it's been that they always get resolved in a morass of punching, explosions and CGI of wildly varying quality. That's fine, but after thirteen previous movies that was starting to get a bit old. Doctor Strange wrong-foots the audience by presenting them with all the set-up for one hell of a massive battle, but then throws things for a loop and resolves the story in a completely different way (although one oddly similar to a recent episode of Doctor Who). I wanted to stand up and applaud Marvel for finally having the courage to end one of their movies in a clever and cunning way that avoids lunatic ultraviolence and massive civilian casualties.

There are some drawbacks. There's perhaps a bit too much of Inception in the CG sequences, which start to get a little wearying towards the end of the film, and Mads Mikkelsen's villain is never really developed in an interesting manner (the perennial weakness of most of the Marvel movies to date).

But overall Doctor Strange (****½) is a very solid slice of confident, popcorn entertainment, but which also has the confidence to try and do things a bit differently to the Marvel norm. The film is on general release in the UK right now and comes out in the United States on 4 November.

Brandon Sanderson's COSMERE universe optioned for film

DMG Entertainment has optioned the film and TV rights to Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere universe, currently consisting of eleven novels, a graphic novel and six novellas and short stories. Sanderson projects that there will eventually be around forty novels set in this universe.

DMG Entertainment - more correctly, DMG Yinji - is a massive Chinese multimedia and film company, founded by Dan Mintz, Peter Xiao and Wu Bing. It has been the prime driver in localising American blockbusters for the domestic Chinese market, even co-producing special versions of films with Chinese-exclusive scenes or Chinese actors, such as Iron Man 3 and Looper. This has allowed DMG to commit $270 million to a production pot. These envisage this to cover 50% of the production costs of the first three films to be covered by the deal. Presumably they will be looking for international companies (probably American) to come on board to provide the other half of the budget.

The first two movies to go into production will be based on The Way of Kings, the first Stormlight Archive novel, and The Final Empire, the first Mistborn novel. It's unclear what the third will be, but potentially Elantris, Warbreaker, White Sand or a sequel to one of the movies. Sanderson has received a chunk of cash under the deal for the rights up-front, plus additional amounts from production and release, which will see a substantial payday for the author even if the films are not successful.

Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, who have worked on Saw franchise, will be adapting The Way of Kings. The Final Empire doesn't have a screenwriter announced yet. DMG plan to fast-track both movies, suggesting we could see them in 3-4 years rather than the much larger lead time you'd expect from such a deal. However, that will likely depend on international production partners being found quickly. Given DMG's immense profile and reputation, that may not be too difficult.

Sanderson has so far sold over 10 million copies of his solo work (also including a large number of non-Cosmere novels for younger reachers, such as the Alcatraz and Rithmatist series) and reportedly more than 12 million copies of his three Wheel of Time novels (derived from Robert Jordan's notes after he passed away in 2007). The Wheel of Time is also in development as a TV series with another company, although further details have not been released as yet.

This is great news for Brandon and his fans, although the strategy will likely leave some scratching their heads. The 600-page Final Empire is far too big for a single two-hour movie, but the 1,100-page The Way of Kings is simply unfilmable as a single feature. Either DMG are envisaging a drastic cut to the storyline, multiple films to cover a single book (with 10 books planned for Stormlight alone, this is unlikely) or possibly a movie or two dovetailing into a TV series later on.

Assuming that all of Sanderson's Cosmere works are covered by the deal, here is what they have the rights to:

Published Works
The Mistborn Trilogy
The Final Empire
The Well of Ascension
The Hero of Ages
Secret History (novella)

Mistborn: Wax & Wayne
The Alloy of Law
Shadows of Self
Bands of Mourning

The Stormlight Archives
The Way of Kings
Words of Radiance
Edgedancer (short story)

Other works
The Hope of Elantris (short story)
The Emperor's Soul (novella)
Shadows for Silence in the Forest of Hell (novella)
Sixth of the Dusk (novella)
White Sand (graphic novel series)

Unpublished Works
The Mistborn II and Mistborn III trilogies
6 novels

Mistborn: Wax & Wayne
The Lost Metal

The Stormlight Achives
Seven further novels 

Seven novels

Other works
Elantris II (and possibly a third book)
Warbreaker II: Nightblood (and possibly a third book)
The Silence Divine


Bryan Fuller steps down as STAR TREK showrunner

Bryan Fuller has stepped down as the senior executive producer and showrunner of Star Trek: Discovery. The surprising news has broken amidst reports of growing concerns at CBS about the production schedule for the show.

Originally Star Trek: Discovery was due to start filming early last month to air in January. This schedule was already ambitious, so when it was announced that the debut date was being dropped back to May 2017, it was hardly surprising. However, more surprising was the news that shooting has been delayed until November and the lack of any casting announcements. It has since transpired that many secondary and supporting roles have indeed been cast and set construction in Toronto is well underway, but Fuller and his team have struggled to find a lead actress.

The news cites Fuller's simultaneous showrunning work on American Gods for Starz. This was supposed to have wrapped up a few weeks ago, allowing Fuller to focus on Star Trek whilst his co-producers on American Gods oversaw post-production. It instead appears that Fuller has remained very hands-on with that show. And on top of that it's also been announced that Fuller is going to be helming a relaunch of Amazing Stories for NBC.

Producers Alex Kurtzman, Gretchen Berg and Aaron Herberts are stepping up as co-showrunners. Fuller will continue to be involved as a producer and writer.

Fuller had previously said that helming a Star Trek show would be his dream job, which may leave some fans questioning why he didn't commit to it fully and instead took on a new, full-time project as well.

CBS now hopes to make casting announcements for Star Trek: Discovery soon and begin shooting in the next few weeks.

Monday, 24 October 2016

RIP Sheri S. Tepper

Renowned and critically-acclaimed science fiction and fantasy author Sheri S. Tepper has passed away at the age of 87.

She was born near Littleton, Colorado, in 1929. She wrote several essays and poems in the 1960s, but her writing career was put on hold as she concentrated on raising her family. It resumed in 1983 with the publication of her first novel, King's Blood Four. This marked the start of a trilogy of trilogies known as The True Game. Her later Plague of Angels trilogy crossed over with this work, which concluded with her last-published novel, Fish Tails, in 2014.

Inbetween she wrote twenty-three other novels. Beauty (1991) won the Locus Award and Gibbon's Decline and Fall (1997), The Family Tree (1997) and The Margarets (2007) were all nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Sideshow (1992) was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award, whilst The Fresco (2000), The Visitor (2002) and The Companions (2003) were all nominated for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

However, Tepper's best-known and most critically acclaimed novel is Grass (1989), which was nominated for both the Hugo and the Campbell. A novel melding feminist, ecological and hard SF concerns, the book was inducted into the SF Masterworks list in 2002. It was followed by two sequels: Raising the Stones (1990) and Sideshow (1992), the three books collectively known as The Arbai Trilogy.

Tepper's work is thoughtful, well-characterised and intelligent. She deservedly won a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.

Vikings: Season 1

Ragnar Lothbrok is a great Norse warrior. He has discovered a means of navigating across the open sea between Scandinavia and the rich western lands of England, but his chieftain, Earl Haraldson, is unimpressed and plans to raid east into the Baltic lands. Ragnar defies his chief to lead a raid in an English monastery named Lindisfarne. Returning home with gold and Christian monks taken as slaves, Ragnar is acclaimed a great hero...and an enemy and rival of Haraldson.

Vikings is a TV show about Vikings, doing Viking stuff like raiding, fighting, carousing and sailing. As far as TV shows go, Vikings does exactly what it says on the tin.

It's also made by the History Channel, which means that it strives to be historically more accurate than most shows about Vikings. It does feature the required amount of raiding, killing, blood-spurting, drunken partying and prayers to Thor and Odin, of course, but it also makes it clear that the Norsemen only raid during the summer and spend the rest of the year fishing, farming or engaging in other trades. The Viking code of law, which sees murder grievously punished and a robust (if primitive) form of jury trial in place, is given a nod and the more-or-less equal nature of women in Viking society as the keepers of the home and hearth, as well as occasionally joining raiding parties as shieldmaidens, is explored.

This first season is nine episodes long and unfolds with verve and vigour. Early episodes focus on Ragnar Lothbrook, played with wild-eyed charisma by Travis Fimmel (also recently seen in the lead role of the WarCraft movie) and his family, particularly his wife Lagertha, played with gravitas and barely-restrained fury by Katheryn Finnick. Clive Standen plays Rollo, Ragnar's older-but-less-capable brother who is deeply loyal to his family but also resentful of his brother's wits and jealous of his wife. Gustaf Skarsgard plays Floki, the builder of Ragnar's ship and the only person around capable of out-crazy-eyeing him. It is hinted in the series that Floki may be touched by the spirit of the trickster god Loki, as his crazy and unpredictable antics show. George Blagstan gives an interesting performance as Athelstan, the Christian monk enslaved by Ragnar but later becomes a friend and "our" viewpoint into the alien world of the Vikings. Rounding out the first season cast is the best-known face, Gabriel Byrne as the main villain, Haraldson.

Given that - Byrne aside - the entire cast is made up of newcomers and lesser-known faces, it's impressive that they all give incredibly convincing and passionate performances. In fact, given that it's from the same makers as the fun-but-cheesy-and-lightweight The Tudors, Vikings impresses all around for the weight and gravity with which it approaches the story. Character motivation is established early on and develops naturally, the Viking culture is portrayed with greater depth and complexity than almost any previous televised depiction and battle sequences (which the show does not shy away from) are visceral, bloody and convincing. The political machinations are fairly straightforward but nevertheless unfold with dire inevitability. Given the short run time, the series enjoys a strong variation in tone (from action to mystical religious stuff to good-hearted fellowship to romance to intrigue), location and character.

The show is reasonably historically accurate - to what we know of anyway - but some decisions are questionable. The idea that the Northumbrians don't know about the Vikings and have enjoyed a long period of peace so don't really know how to fight is somewhat questionable: the Anglo-Saxons weren't exactly shy about fighting and raiding one another and probably knew how to form a shield wall. The show's early episodes also establish a well-respected legal system which everyone is careful to obey, even Earl Haraldson, but later in the season he goes into full-on tyrant mode which is both disappointing from a character perspective and also conflicts with the earlier tone.

Overall, however, the first season of Vikings (****½) is enormous fun. It's well-written, well-acted all around, more subtle and nuanced than you'd expect and delivers tremendously good battle scenes. It's available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA).

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Rick and Morty: Season 1

Rick Sanchez is a brilliant but morally dubious inventor who has the ability to travel through time and space. Forced to move in with his daughter Beth and her "normal" family, Rick has soon embroiled them in his misdeeds, particularly his easily-influenced and hyper-sensitive grandson Morty. Rick and Morty set off on intergalactic adventures, but things soon become odd at home, as Morty's sister Summer gets a job with the devil, and Beth's husband Jerry gets fired after being inadvertently kidnapped by aliens and placed in a low-AI VR simulation of his own life.

Rick and Morty is an animated series airing on Adult Swim in the USA. It's the brainchild of Justin Roiland, a voice actor and writer, but given some additional creative firepower by Dan Harmon, the creator of Community and recent projets including the excellent HarmonQuest.

To sum up, Rick and Morty is a mash-up of Back to the Future, Futurama, South Park and an everyday family sitcom, with a light sprinkling of Archer over the top. The series is ribald, madcap, zany but it is also surprisingly restrained and occasionally even reaches pathos, especially when it deals with Jerry and Beth's strained relationship, and the fact that Morty was once diagnosed with learning difficulties. It can also occasionally be rather unsettling, going for a funny gag that then becomes outright disturbing, such as the encounter between Morty and a sexually-frustrated royal jelly bean in a toilet that has you reaching for the remote in horror before, fortunately, the scene ends on a non-vomit-inducing note.

It's an interesting mix of the cynical and post-cool (particularly with Rick's apathetic, amoral attitude to life) with the genuinely heartwarming and optimistic. The comedy mixes toilet humour with much cleverer and more subtle gags about genuine scientific issues (the planet/not-planet status of Pluto fuels one of the stronger instalments of Season 1), catchphrases you'll soon be yelling at uncomprehending non-viewers and some wry observations on school, work and home life. It also has giant space genies which can be summoned to perform simple tasks but then meet a totally insolvable problem (how to make Jerry a good golfer) which turns them into rampaging psychopaths.

Rick and Morty's greatest asset is that it is simply hilarious, employing a wide variety of mundane and science fiction inspirations to generate humour from almost every scene and line of dialogue. But, like all of the best comedies (and especially SFF comedies, which often settle for lazy stereotyping), it generates that comedy from having very well-defined, conflicted and interesting characters. This is a well-judged comedy with brains and heart to offset its cynicism.

Season 1 of Rick and Morty (****) is available now on DVD (USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA). It is also now available to watch on Netflix in the UK and Ireland.

Star Trek: Enterprise - Season 1

AD 2151. Earth has spent a century recovering from a devastating global war and developing new technologies, such as the ability to travel faster than light through Zephram Cochrane's warp drive. The alien Vulcans have taken taken humanity under their wing, seeing in them great potential but also great dangers linked to their rashness. Now Starfleet's first Warp 5-capable starship, the NX-01 Enterprise, is ready for launch under the command of Jonathan Archer. But the Vulcans are still uncertain about their allies and place one of their own on board to monitor events.

Back in 2001 Star Trek was suffering from a bad case of "franchise fatigue". Rick Berman had produced 21 seasons of television, none shorter than 20 episodes, spanning three different series in fourteen years. His feeling was that the franchise needed to be rested to come back stronger, but Paramount were adamant that they wanted to keep the Star Trek gravy train afloat. Wearily, Berman and Voyager producer Brannon Braga agreed to create a new show but only on the condition that they could be more experimental and bold with it.

The result was Enterprise, a prequel series set 115 years before Captain James T. Kirk's original five-year mission, and about 90 years after the time travel events of the movie Star Trek: First Contact. The idea was to strip away all of Star Trek's convenient and "easy" technology - the transporter, photon torpedoes, shields, the universal translator, replicators - and make something much grittier and more "real", with less pure and ideologically-motivated humans and the making of space into a much darker and more threatening place.

It's a nice idea which, intermittently, works. Enterprise's main problem in this first season is that it kind of pulls its punches. Not as much as Voyager did, but still a lot more than it should. Enterprise doesn't have shields, but instead it can "polarise the hull plating". It doesn't have torpedoes but it does have missiles which are almost as good. It does have a transporter, but it's "risky" to use (albeit it works perfectly when the script needs it to and not when it doesn't). The universal translator is an advanced version of Google Translate and about as reliable, but they have a linguistics genius on board who can straighten it out, so that's fine. All of the less-than-scientific facets of the Star Trek universe - artificial gravity and sound in space most notably - remain intact.

Still, Enterprise remains a big improvement over Voyager. The show deliberately hearkens back to the original series's sense of adventure, with Archer as a bold, curious scientific explorer (who's not afraid to get his hands dirty when needed) in Captain Kirk's mould. It's also fun to see what mischief the crew can get up to without the Prime Directive holding them back (even though by the end of the season the need for it becomes clear). Unlike Voyager's crew of dysfunctional, depressed bores, this crew is a bit livelier and funnier, with a generally much higher standard of acting ability (Dominic Keating being the weakest link, and he improves significantly as the season progresses). Scott Bakula, possibly the most likable person on Earth, makes for a great captain, Jolene Blalock overcomes some dubious costuming choices to deliver a smart and nuanced performance (her deadpan sense of humour comes more to the fore in later episodes) and Linda Park is great - if not given enough to do - as linguistics expert Hoshi. Connor Trinneer's engineer (who seems to be a mash-up of Scotty's engineering genius and McCoy's Southern charm) Trip is less interesting but kind of harmless. Anthony Montgomery's Travis probably gets the rawest deal in terms of having anything to do. The strongest performance on the show is given by John Billingsley as Dr. Phlox. Early fears that he might be Neelix Mk. 2 never materialise and he goes on to give a nuanced performance throughout the season (apart from a comedy plotline in which he is woken up early from his annual hibernation, which is irritating).

Enterprise may be better than Voyager at this early showing, but that certainly doesn't make it perfect. Individual episodes vary immensely in quality, with some very strong and entertaining episodes like Dear Doctor and The Andorian Incident having to make up for a lot of typical, semi-Star Trek filler pap. For a first season, Enterprise tests its viewers' patience a lot. Maybe not as much as the first seasons of TNG and Voyager, but there's a still an fair bit of tedium to get through to get to the good moments.

More questionable is the insertion of a storyline in which time-travelling operatives from the far future are engaged in a "temporal cold war" with one another. Having a Star Trek prequel series building naturally to the universe we know is a good idea. Having one in which some guy from the 31st Century shows up and tells Archer that he's special and his actions will lead to the founding of the Federation is a lazy shortcut. The main alien race in this storyline, the Suliban, is also not one of Star Trek's more interesting antagonist races, it has to be said.

But, ultimately, Enterprise ends up being diverting and entertaining. It's also interesting as a historical artifact: shortly after this season began, 9/11 took place and American SF took a turn for the darker and more cynical. That gave us some great TV like the new Battlestar Galactica, but it also may have taken things down too dark a path. Enterprise's overwhelming feeling of optimism, adventure and exploration is, when done well, a refreshing tonic to the grimness that would come after it.

The first season of Star Trek: Enterprise (***½) is watchable, harmless and occasionally very cheesy fun. It's not the franchise at its best, but it's a long way from it at its worst. It does have a lot of potential, but it needs to up its game in future seasons. The season is available now on Blu-Ray (UK, USA) and on Netflix in the UK and Ireland.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

RIP Steve Dillon

Legendary comic book artist Steve Dillon has passed away at the age of 56.

Dillon was a comic book prodigy. He sold his first professional work at the age of just 16, for the UK Hulk Weekly comic. He later drew the Nick Fury strip in the same comic. In 1980 he designed the iconic Doctor Who Magazine comic character Abslom Daak, Dalek Killer, and went on to draw many of his appearances in the title. He also worked on the 2000AD comic, particularly the Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper and ABC Warriors strips.

In the 1990s Dillon formered a working partnership with writer Garth Ennis, first on a run on Hellblazer and then in their own collaborative title, the enormously popular and critically-acclaimed Preacher (which has recently transitioned to TV as an AMC series). Dillon has also been acclaimed for his long-running work on The Punisher.

Dillon's work was straightforward but packed with character, incident and detail. I'm less familiar with his US work, but I was a big fan of his work on the Doctor Who comic, particularly his creation of Abslom Daak, and his 2000AD period. He will be missed, as he has gone far too young.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Donald Glover cast as Lando Calrissian in 2018's STAR WARS movie

Actor, writer and musician Donald Glover has been cast as the young Lando Calrissian in the Han Solo-focused Star Wars spin-off movie, currently due to hit cinemas in 2018.

Donald Glover is best-known for his role as Troy Barnes in the comedy series Community. He currently stars on Atlanta, which he also co-writes. He is also a double-Grammy Award-nominated musician for his work under the moniker Childish Gambino.

Glover, a major Star Wars fan, has been long a fan-favourite for the role of the young Lando. He will also be appearing in the new Spider-Man movie, Homecoming, due next year.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

J.R.R. Tolkien to release new book, despite deceased status

J.R.R. Tolkien will release a new book in 2017, despite having died in 1973.

An illustration of Luthien by Ted Nasmith.

The new book is entitled Beren and Luthien and relates the story of the star-crossed lovers from the First Age of Middle-earth.

The news has caused brows to furrow across fantasy fandom. The story of Beren and Luthien is one of the central legends in Tolkien's The Silmarillion and Tolkien wrote several extended versions of it whilst he was alive, but nothing on the order of the story of Turin Turambar which allowed that story to be published as a short book in 2007, under the title The Children of Hurin.

Indeed, a more likely candidate for the same kind of treatment would be The Fall of Gondolin, the very first full-length narrative of Middle-earth that Tolkien wrote in 1917. Not only is there there original prose story (albeit in a very archaic form), previously published in The Book of Lost Tales, but there is also an updated (if incomplete), post-Lord of the Rings version from Unfinished Tales and the unfinished poem The Lay of the Fall of Gondolin.

Beren and Luthien will open with the Tale of Tinuviel, the very first version of the story written circa 1917-18 and previously published in The Book of Lost Tales. It is expected that the book will also contain The Lay of Leithian, a nearly-finished poem version (previously appearing in The Lays of Beleriand), the summarised version from The Silmarillion and the account that appears in The Lord of the Rings. It will still be probably quite a short book, but will be fleshed out with new illustrations by master Tolkien artist Alan Lee. As usual, Tolkien's son Christopher is on editorial duties.