Thursday, 26 February 2015

The 100: Season 1

AD 2149. Ninety-seven years after a nuclear war devastated the Earth, more than two and a half thousand people live in refuge on an orbiting space station, the Ark. With life support beginning to fail, the ruling council of the Ark decides to see if Earth is survivable by sending down a hundred criminals. As adult criminals are executed to save food and air, this means sending down young delinquents.

As the hundred exiles fight to survive on Earth - and later against the other survivors they discover living in the woods - the inhabitants of the Ark also fall into an internal power struggle as it becomes clear that the station cannot support them for much longer, and not everyone can survive to make it to the ground.

The 100 is a post-apocalyptic drama that seems to take great delight in its inspirations: the show comes across as the result of a collision between Battlestar Galactica, Lost, The Hunger Games and Fallout. The show adroitly fuses its inspirations in fun and original ways and ends up being a lot more entertaining than it has any right being, but it does take a little while to get there.

The show is the product of American network The CW, famed its glossy productions featuring preposterously photogenic young actors engaging in life-and-death struggles whilst also trying to straighten out their elaborately complicated love lives. The 100 somehow manages to turn this tendency up to 11: characters angst about their personal relationships almost at the same level they worry about starvation, dehydration, being impaled by spears and radiation sickness, all of which are constant and simultaneous threats. This would risk being silly, except for the odd hints that the writers are deliberately sending up this aspect of the network's shows. The series also gets away with it because it is also one of the most surprisingly brutal television shows on air. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead have made shocking main character deaths more accepted on cable, but for a more youth-oriented series The 100 is startlingly bleak. We get population counts for both the exiles on the ground and the survivors on the Ark and both numbers drop at a rate of knots as the season progresses and the writers gleefully take an axe (or gun, or airlock, or plague, or in one highly memorable moment, a giant metal shuriken thing) to the cast.

The show gets off to a mixed start, being both unafraid to kill over apparently major players from the off but also unleashing some of the most ham-fisted, expositionary and clumsy writing you'll see on television all year. Characters initially come across as being very archetypal (or, if you're less kind, cliched as hell) and the actors initially seem unsure how to handle the material they are given. Henry Ian Cusick, in his first major TV role since playing Desmond on Lost, is both saddled with a dubious accent and some poor characterisation and can only respond by hamming it up for the first few weeks. Dialogue is poor and little reason is given for us to care about any of these characters.

Fortunately, that changes and fairly quickly. By the sixth episode the writers have added a lot of ambiguity and (relative) complexity to the characters, the actors have much more layered material to work with and the show becomes a bit more experimental, not afraid to ditch half the cast for a week or two in favour of flashbacks to add depth and backstory. The writers also become quite good at creating internal conflict within the characters, giving them more to do than just stand around and look pretty.

This is helped by some fairly intense pacing. The series is uninterested in adopting a format and sticking with it, with shifts in factions, locations and motivations taking place on a near-weekly basis. The initial split between the ground and the space station is well-handled, despite it occasionally feeling like you're watching episodes of Lost and BSG that have been fan-spliced together (the presence of actors from both shows - particularly BSG - not helping). When our heroes on the ground find a mysterious hatch in the forest (albeit one that opens immediately and not after a tediously-drawn out 16-episode struggle) and characters in orbit wrestle with their consciences as they have to ration supplies and blast a traitor out of the airlock, The 100 feels like it is risking becoming a parody of those other series. However, the show then moves into other territory, becoming more confident and forging its own path. The season finale, which not so much changes the premise as drives a bulldozer through it and then burns down the remains, is the most game-changing cliffhanger in a series in recent times.

The actors are, for the most part, likable. The younger castmembers bring enthusiasm and gumption, although some are more experienced than others (Eliza Taylor did her time in the trenches of Australian daytime soap opera). More veteran actors are used to populate the Ark and, after that initial writing hurdle in the first few episodes, are great. However, the show's flirtation with killing off Chancellor Jaha gets a little old. Clearly they realised that Isaiah Washington is too good to off so easily, but it'd be better if they stopped putting him in near-death situations every other week. The weak spot is the handling of romance, which is trite. Octavia (Marie Avgeropoulos) and Lincoln (Ricky Whittle) fall in love without exchanging a word (although later on they do manage to earn it back), whilst the budding romance between Clarke (Taylor) and Finn (Thomas McDonell) is hamstrung by the utter lack of any chemistry at all between the two actors. Fortunately the writers seem to cotton onto this and use it to their advantage later on. As the season progresses there is also less time for teen stuff as the prospect of all-out war rears its head and some new, more enigmatic enemies enter the fray.

For its first season, The 100 (***½) starts off pretty poor but improves rapidly to become a solidly entertaining show. The writing starts out clumsy and the dialogue jarring, but it gets better. The characters become a lot more interesting and conflicted and the show gleefully subverts audience expectations at almost every turn. Certainly worth a look, especially as the second season so far has been a big improvement. The first season is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Monday, 23 February 2015

New cover art from Sanderson & Abercrombie

Tor have revealed the American cover art for Shadows of Self, the fifth Mistborn novel from Brandon Sanderson and the second of four books featuring the characters of Wax and Wayne. The book will be out in October this year and will rapidly be followed by its sequel, Bands of Morning, in January 2016.

Meanwhile, Del Rey have unveiled the American cover for Half a War, the concluding volume of The Shattered Sea Trilogy. This book will be out on 16 July in the UK and 28 July in the USA and concludes the story begun in Half a King and Half the World.

No word yet on if Abercrombie and Sanderson will ever collaborate on a novel, possibly one where swearing forms the basis for an imaginative magic system.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

New ALIEN film confirmed

20th Century Fox have commissioned director Neill Blomkamp to work on a new Alien film. The director of District 9, Elysium and Chappie had hinted he was working on ideas for a new film in the franchise a few months ago.

The new project is proceeding simultaneously alongside Ridley Scott's Prometheus II. Scott had previously suggested that the sequel to Prometheus would move away from even the vague connections to the xenomorphs the original film had in favour of the mythology and backstory of the Engineers. Whilst Fox is okay with this - Prometheus grossed almost half a billion dollars at the box office - they also seem to want to continue the core Alien franchise at the same time.

Little is known about the new film, although in Blomkamp's concept art it appears he was considering a 'proper' Alien 5 with Sigourney Weaver and possibly even Michael Biehn reappearing in their roles as Ripley and Hicks. The fact that Hicks died (controversially off-screen) in Alien 3 has hinted that Biehn might be following Scott's idea that none of the films after Aliens should be considered canon. I can't see Fox entirely being happy with that (it would remove no less than four films from the canon) unless they thought it would make them a ton of cash.

If work is only starting now, it's unlikely we will see Alien 5 before late 2017 or early 2018 at the earliest. This would make for easily the longest gap in the main series since the franchise started in 1979. It remains to be seen if Blomkamp can breathe some new life into this increasingly tired foe.

Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

Mark is one of the most resourceful men alive: smart, cunning and trained in combat and subterfuge with a brilliant talent for information analysis. He is also weighed down by the knowledge that he is a clone of a more famous and more effective military commander: Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar. Infiltrating the Dendarii mercenaries by posing as his 'brother', Mark embarks on a vengeful attack on the genetic laboratories on Jackson's Whole. This sets in motion a chain of events that will change his life, and that of his brother, forever.

Mirror Dance is, chronologically, the ninth novel in The Vorkosigan Saga and one of the most vitally important in terms of both the metaplot and character. It starts off in a rather traditional way for the series, with a mission for the Dendarii that appears to be straightforward and then rapidly becomes complicated. The difference here is that it is Mark who has set up the mission and it becomes painfully obvious that, for all his gifts, he is not Miles. Bujold plays a clever game here, since it would be implausible for the Dendarii (who know that Miles has a clone) to fall for Mark's deception so easily, so she has to set up a situation where they would plausibly go along with the plan in any case. Some dangling plot elements established as long ago as The Warrior's Apprentice are exploited ingeniously to do this.

The book opens with a structure that reflects the book's title. Chapters alternate between Mark trying to pull off his crazy scheme and Miles getting wind of it and trying to stop him. Events collide on Jackson's Whole, at which point the story takes a left-field turn that I don't think many readers were expecting. The scale of the book suddenly explodes, incorporating a return to Barryar, our first encounter with Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan for many novels and some expert commentary on the changing state of Barrayaran society. Then there is a sprint for the finish, taking in explosive action sequences and an extraordinarily disturbing torture sequence that might even make Scott Bakker flinch (okay, probably not).

Mirror Dance is certainly the most epic book in the series to date, revisiting past plot points, characters and events on a scale not before seen (contributing to its unusual length compared to the previous volumes). But Bujold maintains a tight reign on the narrative and backs up the expanded canvas with some impressively nuanced character development. Around for the opening and finale, Miles sits out a large chunk of the novel as Bujold explores Mark's character in impressive depth. Even more remarkably, Bujold uses Mark to develop Miles and his shifting cover identities despite him not being around for a good third of the novel, and also to catch up on some characters we haven't seen for a while.

There's also the feeling of change in this book. The political situation on Barrayar, simmering in the background of many volumes, feels like it is now coming to a head with events in this novel confirming that the new generation - that of Gregor, Miles, Elena and Ivan - is coming into its own. The events of this novel seem to shake Miles's position as commander of the Dendarii, whilst  the explosive changes on Jackson's Whole could reverberate across the galaxy. There's a feeling of Bujold loosening things up in this book, essential for any long-running series, and ensuring that readers will want to proceed into this book's direct sequel, Memory, immediately.

Mirror Dance (*****) is a remarkable book and easily the best in the series to date, more than deserving of its Hugo Award. It starts as another military SF adventure, turns into a combination of mystery and political thriller and then skews briefly into action overdrive before concluding with a bleak moment of horror that - apparently - is turned into a positive outcome. Bujold's enviable skills with writing and character make it all seem natural. The novel is available now as part of the Miles Errant omnibus (UK, USA).

Paul Kearney's UMBRA SUMUS delayed due to title clash

Paul Kearney's first Warhammer 40,000 novel, Dark Hunters: Umbra Sumus, was originally announced for publication by the Black Library for May of this year. It was then sneakily brought forward to the start of this month, meaning that it should have been out already. Unfortunately the book was pulled at the last moment due to a problem with its name.

Not Umbra Sumus, which is fine, but the series title, Dark Hunters. In WH40K lore, the Dark Hunters are a Space Marine chapter tasked with tracking down and destroying a Chaos Marine chapter known as the Punishers. Even by the grim standards of the setting, the Hunters are noted for being resolute and not much fun at parties.

The problem with this is that there is a quite well-known series by American  urban fantasy superstar Sherrilyn Kenyon, also known as Dark-Hunter (I'm assuming the hyphen and singular title is what BL missed when seeing if the term was already copyrighted). It began in 2002 and now comprises 26 novels, accounting for the majority of Kenyon's 30 million+ sales. Although not often discussed on genre websites, it's one of the biggest series in the genre with sales far outstripping that of the likes of The Dresden Files.

Even the mighty Games Workshop knows better than to take on the legal forces of an author so popular she can make a logo out of her initials.

Umbra Sumus and the previous Dark Hunters WH40K material has been withdrawn and will be reissued after a title change, hopefully later this year. It's unclear at the moment if the BL will have to completely rename the Dark Hunters chapter in all of the lore as well.

Paul is also working on a new novel for Solaris, The Wolf in the Attic, which is now looking like an early 2016 release.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE TV show gets full series order

Amazon recently aired a pilot for a TV series based on Philip K. Dick's SF novel The Man in the High Castle. Driven by strong reviews, it became the most-watched TV show in the history of their pilot scheme and one of the most highly-rated. Surprising no-one, Amazon has given a full-season order for the series.

It's not clear how many episodes will be in the first season, but it should air early in 2016.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Teaser Trailer for Season 2 of LES REVENANTS

The first season of Les Revenants (aka The Returned) was a surprise hit for Channel 4 in the UK when it aired eighteen months ago. Unfortunately, the show's return was delayed by production issues but filming has finally concluded and Canal+ are planning to air the series in the summer or autumn. Hopefully UK transmission will be closer to the French dates this time around.

The new series picks up six months after the events of the first season, with the authorities investigating just what the hell happened in the town leading to the flooding and crazy rumours of dead people coming back to life. It sounds like the second season may have a slightly larger scope than the first and will (hopefully) delve more deeply into the backstory of the series.

Meanwhile, A&E are debuting the American remake of the first season on 9 March.

It's a pretty faithful-looking adaptation of the original, almost to the point of pastiche.

Friday, 13 February 2015


Gearbox and Blackbird continue to discuss the re-release of Homeworld Remastered, which hits Steam on 25 February:

First D&D 5th Edition video game is a BALDUR'S GATE spiritual successor

Unexpectedly, Wizards of the Coast have announced that the first Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition video game will be a lower-priced RPG heavily influenced by classic RPGs Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights.

The game, Sword Coast Legends, will be set on the Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms (the new edition's default setting), like the Baldur's Gate series, and will allow anyone from 1 to 4 players to take part in an epic adventure. The game will also feature DM tools, to allow aspiring creators to craft their own adventures. The game will be a PC-only release, likely at a lower price point than normal. The game will be played from an overhead, isometric perspective but in full 3D, bearing more than a passing resemblance to last year's extremely successful Divinity: Original Sin.

The news is surprising but welcome. The gameplay looks solid and the developers, n-Space and Digital Extremes, worked on the pleasingly bonkers recent action game Warframe. Lead director Brent Knowles was also a veteran of BioWare's heyday, working on a number of titles including being one of the main creative forces on Dragon Age: Origins. He quit when EA mandated a quickie action sequel (which became the troubled Dragon Age II) rather than investing in a proper, large-scale epic sequel. His presence should hopefully mean that the game is quite epic and will feature more tactical combat (which already seems to be the case). Hopefully we should learn more soon.

Meanwhile, Beamdog, who recently updated the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale games to modern standards, are continuing work on an all-new interquel set between Baldur's Gate and its sequel, using the original game engine. Both games are expected for release in late 2015.

SPACE HULK: DEATHWING and JUST CAUSE 3 trailers feature unusual music choices

Video game trailer music is heavy on either rock or graceful orchestral movements, so it's nice to see a pair of new trailers that are changing things up.

First up is Just Cause 3, set to a chilled-out, ice-cool rendition of Prodigy's 1996 hit single "Firestarter". SPOILER: this trailer confirms that the game will feature explosions.

Next is Space Hulk: Deathwing, set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only Swiss mariach-influenced rap.

Both games will be out later this year. Next up: a trailer for the new Call of Duty game set to jazz fusion.