Thursday, 31 December 2015

THE EXPANSE renewed for Season 2, but no news of a UK broadcaster

SyFy has renewed its critically-acclaimed space opera drama series The Expanse for a second season. It has also increased its order to 13 episodes for the second season, from 10 in the first.

The Expanse's first season has done only moderately okay in the ratings for its first four episodes, but SyFy has cross-released the episodes through VOD services and its website. On this metric, the views-per-episode have increased from 1.5 million per episode to somewhere north of 4 million per episode. This, coupled with significant critical acclaim, has likely played a major role in the decision to renew.

However, there have been some issues with distribution. For example, the show is still without a UK screening partner almost halfway through its first season run. In addition, the late start and some poor timing for the release of the first few episodes (up against Christmas and The Force Awakens in cinema) have dented the noise and buzz the show might have otherwise generated.

Season 2 of The Expanse, which is expected to be based primarily around the novel Caliban's War, will debut on SyFy in early 2017.

FINAL FANTASY IX announced for PC

No, you're not reading that wrong. Square Enix have confirmed that Final Fantasy IX will be released on PC, smartphones and tablets early in 2016.

Originally released in 2000 on the original PlayStation, Final Fantasy IX initially had a muted reception. However, as time passed and the game was reappraised it found a new level of popularity for its story, setting and characters. In modern "Best of the Series" lists, Final Fantasy IX regularly swaps places with VI and VII as the best-regarded game in the entire series.

The new version of the game will feature somewhat sharper graphics and a revamped control interface. No release date has been set, given that Square don't usually announce these things too far in advance I'd be surprised if it was any later than the spring.

ETA: NeoGaf has a thread here showcasing some of the original concept art for FFIX and some of the original high-resolution renders of the backgrounds before they were downgraded for the PS1 version of the game. Well worth a look.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Daredevil: Season 1

Hell's Kitchen, New York City. A shadowy property magnate is buying up crumbling tenements, dreaming of a "better tomorrow" for the city, but at the cost of people who have lived there for decades. Two hotshot lawyers decline a massive salary from a prestigious firm to set up their own independent practice and soon find themselves mired in corruption scandals and being asked to defend murderers. And, in the back alleys and drug dens, a masked vigilante is bringing his own brand of justice to the streets, one criminal at a time.

Daredevil is a fresh take on the Marvel Comics character, completely unrelated to the 2003 Ben Affleck film, although (obviously) sharing the same basic premise. Matt Murdock (played with quiet charisma by Charlie Cox) is a young man who was blinded as a child by a toxic chemical spill. Although he can't see as other people can, the chemicals have given him a sort of visual "sonar" which allows him to detect people around him. He becomes an attorney at law, but despairs of the crime and corruption he sees infesting his home neighbourhood of Hell's Kitchen. Having been trained in martial arts by a sensei as a child, he renews these skills and embarks on a one-man vigilante spree at night. However, his actions soon attract the interest of the media, the criminal gangs that control the area and he finds keeping his double life secret from his friends increasingly difficult.

So far, so standard. But where Daredevil succeeds is that it adopts a convincing cinematographic style that puts the camera and the viewer in the heart of the action. The fight scenes are spectacularly well-choreographed and acknowledge the fact that actually punching someone once usually isn't enough to render them unconscious. The series also accepts that the human body can only take so much punishment, and Murdock is frequently seen spending days recovering from a brutal fight before he can go back into action again. Having a superhero series which dwells on the fragility of its central character is unusual but this works unexpectedly well, emphasising Murdock's bravery - or stupidity - when he heads out to fight again.

The other thing Daredevil throws into the mix is the idea of the villain as an antagonist deserving of his own story arc and character development. It's four episodes before we finally meet crime lord Wilson "Kingpin" Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio) but when we do, he rapidly becomes as important and compelling a character. We follow him as he develops his criminal enterprise, apparently with the beneficial aim of helping revitalise the city, and also falls in love with an art gallery owner, Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer). It takes a few episodes before Kingpin's fully monstrous side to come to the fore, as the show instead tries to show how he came to be who he is. Elaborate flashback episodes reveal Kingpin's childhood under an abusive father, whilst also filling in the backstory to Matt's accident, his upbringing by his father and later a martial arts expert, and how he and his partner Fogger Nelson (Elden Henson) met.

Other characters are also very well developed, with Deborah Ann Woll particularly excelling as Karen Page. Woll spent seven seasons on True Blood as reluctant vampire Jessica, where early interesting character development was undone by that show's descent into outright insanity by its midway point. Here Woll gets a lot more to do as Karen evolves from crime victim to legal secretary to self-motivated investigative agent. Toby Leonard Moore also gives a terrific performance as James Wesley, Fisk's right-hand man whose ice-cool professionalism masks an abiding loyalty to his employer.

The series takes advantage of its freedom as 13-episode show guaranteed to go the distance before being written. This is less of a procedural as a mini-series, one story unfolding over thirteen hours which takes full advantage of that running time to delve deep into the characters whilst also providing compelling action sequences, thematic musings on the nature of heroism and villainy and not being afraid to get experimental. In one episode it benches Murdock for most of the hour after a particularly bad beating to explore his childhood. In another, Foggy Nelson takes centre stage and he convincingly evolves away from mere comic sidekick to a fully-realised and capable lawyer in his own right. The show even has time to muse on the gentrification of New York and the good points and bad points about it, and on the changing nature of journalism. Almost preposterously, Daredevil's subplot about news reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and his work at The New York Bulletin does a better job of discussing the evolving nature of news media than the final season of The Wire. The season also works as an extended origin story, bringing the elements of the Daredevil character and mythos together slowly rather than just by the end of the first hour.

Daredevil's biggest success is shifting the tone and atmosphere of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to something more serious, better-characterised, more grounded and far more interesting. It's helped by being shaped by a trio of writers who cut their teeth with Joss Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Drew Goddard, Steven S. DeKnight and Doug Petrie - who have since gone on to work on other projects including Cloverfield, The Martian, Spartacus and American Horror Story. Their experience shows immensely in this well-crafted, ambitious, darkly-humoured and at times startlingly well-written drama series which makes you believe that a blind man can fight crime on the streets of New York City and prosper.

The first season of Daredevil (****½) is the best slice of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far (note: I have not yet seen Jessica Jones) and may just the be the greatest superhero TV show to date, whilst also often working far beyond those narrow genre confines. It is available now on Netflix and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2016.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

60 Unforgivable Plot Holes in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS...or not

That bastion of glorious journalism, the Huffington Post, has published two articles, one entitled "40 Unforgivable Plot Holes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and the other "20 More Plot Holes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens". Some of the points raised are valid, and indeed rather annoying. Rather a lot are totally invalid, and are either explained in the film itself or in the six movies that precede it. So let's take a look at each point and see how fair each one is.


Sunday, 27 December 2015


I've had quite a few people asking me if there will be a book version of the History of Epic Fantasy articles. I am pleased to say that yes, there will be. This will also not be just the blog articles collected into a .pdf to make a quick buck, but will be a thorough rewriting and re-editing of the entire series. The book version will also be larger and feature more content on authors, themes, series and ideas.

No, this still won't be the cover.

The book version will follow the blog format of looking at the history of the genre through mainly a chronological perspective, with some asides into thematic areas. There'll also be a look at other areas of fantasy and how that relates to the epic field. There'll be more space for more authors, so writers I had to leave out of the blog version for time reasons will get coverage, such as Peter V. Brett, L.E. Modesitt Jnr., Elizabeth Moon and so on.

The book version is being shopped around by my agent (Ian Drury at Sheil Land, just in case any publishers out there are interested) but if we get no interest from that quarter, I will certainly be self-publishing. The interest from readers and even quite a few fantasy authors in this project has certainly been high, and resulted in a massive explosion of hits (tens of thousands of them over the same period last year) for the blog, not to mention the fact that epic fantasy has never been bigger than now, so I'm confident there is commercial potential in the idea.

If anyone has any ideas for the book version, they will be gratefully received. I've had a suggestion that we could look at including more and maybe iconic artwork from fantasy covers and series. Unfortunately, the licensing fees for this would likely be prohibitive, but if a professional publisher picks up the book then it might be possible to do something alone those lines.

I've also had people requesting a science fiction version (although in that case a "History of Space Opera" might be the equivalent). This would certainly be fun, but there are already quite a few good such books out there. Although older, Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove is worth a look, as is the 1995 SF: The Illustrated Encyclopedia by John Clute, which arranges the history of SF into handy chronological charts, thematic essays and profiles of hundreds of prominent authors in the field. In fact, one of the inspirations for the History of Epic Fantasy series was the baffling lack of any such comparative material for the epic fantasy field, despite its much greater sales and popularity. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is certainly a resource everyone should be using for SF, although that is not a linear, chronological look at the field.

I would also like to take this opportunity to extend my thanks to everyone who read and commented on the article series. Your feedback has been appreciated, and has inspired some of the changes that will go into the book version.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Contents & Link Guide

Here's a handy link list to all of the parts of the History of Epic Fantasy series.

Part 1: Pre-Modern Fantasy
Jonathan Swift, George Macdonald, William Morris, Frank L. Baum, E.R. Eddison & Robert E. Howard

Part 2: In a hole in a ground there live a hobbit...
J.R.R. Tolkien

Part 3: Dying Earths and Magic Wardrobes
C.S. Lewis, Fritz Leiber, Mervyn Peake, Jack Vance

Part 4: The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien

Part 5: The Influence of Middle-earth
Book lengths, worldbuilding, maps, language, peoples and themes.

Part 6: Fantasy in the 1960s and 1970s
Michael Moorcock, Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, Andre Norton, Poul Anderson, Patricia McKillip, Roger Zelazny

Part 7: Let the dice decide
Gary Gygax, Dungeons and Dragons, roleplaying games

Part 8: The Birth of the Modern Genre
Lester and Judy-Lynn Del Rey, Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson

Part 9: The Second Wave
Gene Wolfe, David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist

Part 10: Funny Fantasy
Piers Anthony, Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett and Discworld

Part 11: Heroism and Cynicism
David Gemmell and Glen Cook

Part 12: Fantasy of Many Colours
Ursula K. LeGuin, Katherine Kurtz, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Janny Wurts, Mercedes Lackey, Melanie Rawn, Megan Lindholm

Part 13: Dragons and Drow
Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman, R.A. Salvatore

Part 14: The Arrival of the Mega-Epic
Tad Williams and Memory, Sorrow and Thorn

Part 15: Slipstream Fantasy
Stephen King, Patrick Tilley, Hugh Cook, David Gemmell, Shadowrun

Part 16: Fantasy, History and Mythology
Jack Vance, Guy Gavriel Kay, Garry Kilworth, Mary Gentle, Jacqueline Carey, Naomi Novik, Pierre Pevel,

Part 17: Spinning the Wheel
Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time

Part 18: The Influence of the Dragon Reborn
Length, magic systems, gender roles, narrative expansion,

Part 19: Fantasy of the Nineties
Andrzej Sapkowski, Kate Elliott, Terry Goodkind, J.V. Jones, Paul Kearney

Part 20: The Game Begins
George R.R. Martin and A Song of Ice and Fire

Part 21: Ice and Fire
The influence of A Song of Ice and Fire

Part 22: Cash or kudos
Fantasy on film

Part 23: Small screen fantasy
Fantasy on television

Part 24: You have been eaten by a grue
Fantasy in video games

Part 25: Hogwarts Rising
J.K. Rowling

Part 26: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Fallen
Steven Erikson, Ian Cameron Esslemont and the Malazan Empire

Part 27: Assassins & Living Ships
Robin Hobb and The Realm of the Elderlings

Part 28: The New Weird
China Mieville, Steph Swainston, Jeff VanderMeer, Mark Charan Newton

Part 29: Dark Fantasy
Matt Stover, R. Scott Bakker, Jacqueline Carey

Part 30: Millennial Fantasy
Trudi Canavan, Chris Wooding, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, Richard Morgan.

Part 31: The Universe as a Playground
Brandon Sanderson and the Cosmere

Part 32: The Mystery Man of Fantasy
K.J. Parker

Part 33: The Colour of Money
Economics in fantasy: Raymond E. Feist, George R.R. Martin, Steven Erikson, Terry Pratchett, Daniel Abraham.

Part 34: Modern Fantasy
Kameron Hurley, N.J. Jemisin, Mark Lawrence, Elizabeth Bear, Anthony Ryan.

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 34

In 2015 epic fantasy is in the best health it's been for a long time. Game of Thrones is the most popular drama in the world, publishers are putting out more books and series than ever before and fantasy video games are shifting vast quantities. Even better, the genre is evolving and getting more original, casting aside the trappings of the past to explore ever more interesting ideas about people, magic and worlds.

God's War & The Mirror Empire

Few authors have arrived with such ferocity as Kameron Hurley. Her first novel, God's War (2010), is an SF-fantasy hybrid where technology is replaced by the use of magically-controlled, genetically-engineered bugs, who are manipulated and directed by wizards. Her world is gripped in a centuries-long war between two rival cultures both following radically different, differently-descended versions of Islam (one male-dominated, the other female). Cultural and gender issues are explored against the backdrop of an action-packed, well-realised story featuring Nyx, the most conflicted and amoral protagonist to be seen in many a year. Two sequels followed.

More traditional in its epic fantasy construction - if only nominally - is The Worldbreaker Saga, which commenced with The Mirror Empire (2014). This chronicles a fantasy world that is being invaded by forces from its own parallel universe, where invaders can only cross over if their counterpart in the other timeline is dead or never existed in the first place. Angry matriarchs do battle, armies clash and massive plant-monsters abound. It's a fantasy series that does things differently to the norm whilst also ensuring the more basic tropes of the genre are engaged with.

In between, Hurley has found time to write insightful and passionate essays on the nature of genre fiction. The most notable of these is the Hugh Award-winning "We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative", which argues for a more nuanced and complex view of the role of women in history, and in genre fiction which apes it.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms & The Killing Moon

Nora Jemisin exploded onto the scene in 2010 with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, a mind-bending story of floating cities, gods imprisoned to be used as weapons, and a young woman searching for her destiny. Original and thought-provoking, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and its two sequels in The Inheritance Trilogy (2010-11) are representative of a new breed of epic fantasy which is more bizarre, strange and original whilst also delivering fascinating characters and a well-described secondary world.

Jemisin's second published work (although written earlier), The Dreamblood duology (2012), is set in a fantasy kingdom heavily inspired by Ancient Egypt but which also steers clear of cliche: no pyramids or mummies here. The duology revolves around a form of magic that is drawn from people when they sleep, but when a contagion is relased that kills people as they sleep the sect known as the Gatherers must investigate. The result is a more traditional epic fantasy (if only relatively) than The Inheritance Trilogy but one that still riffs of different cultures and fuses elements of religion and war to a murder mystery investigation.

Jemisin's latest work is The Broken Earth Trilogy.

Prince of Thorns

Released in 2011, Prince of Thorns achieved almost immediate success. The UK publishers packaged free copies of the book alongside George R.R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons and canny use of social media was made to promote the novel. The book gained an unfair degree of notoriety when on early review criticised it for graphic sexual violence which simply does not exist in the novel, but it went on to become hugely successful.

The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future where Europe has been partially drowned by rising sea levels. Magic exists, but is apparently a form of highly advanced technology. Computer AIs play a key role in the story. At a key point, a horrific magical weapon turns out to be nuclear device. This is the traditional "rationalised fantasy" story, where the magic is actually explained by science. But the setting takes a back seat compared to the thorough exploration of the main character, Jorg Ancrath.

Jorg is an unapologetically amoral murdering prince who holds no qualms about killing those who stand between him and his goals. He has a rough loyalty to his men and a highly idealised obsession with the woman he loves. As the initial Broken Empire trilogy (2011-13) progresses, Jorg seems to learn and grow, but not necessarily in the healthiest or most positive of ways. His politicking, ruthlessness and military acumen leads to success, of sorts. He is an easy character to despise, even if you admire his ingenuity. It's a difficult balancing act with Mark Lawrence pulls off with huge success.

His subsequent series, The Red Queen's War (2014-16), follows a Flashman-esque coward and fop who is thrust into the middle of epic events (some of them crossing over with the Broken Empire series) against his will. His next series, The Red Sister, will be set in a new world with a female protagonist.

Range of Ghosts

Elizabeth Bear published her first SF novel, Hammerhead, in 2005, after several years of writing acclaimed short fiction. She won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2005 and has gone to win many further awards, including three Hugos. She has written in multiple generes, including science fiction, cyberpunk and general fantasy, but her most notable work of epic fantasy is The Eternal Sky Trilogy (2012-14).

This trilogy is set in a world that echoes the Middle and Near East during the Middle Ages, revolving around the struggle for power and dominance in a Mongol-esque horde. At the same time, events are unfolding beyond the Khaganate's borders which gradually engulf multiple people from radically different cultures. As epic fantasy set-ups go, it's a fairly standard. However, the author uses excellent, original prose and vivid characters to create a story about different cultural groups learning to work together for a common goal. The setting, with a sky that shifts depending on the dominant socio-religious make-up of the land, is original and interesting despite its echoes from our own history.

Blood Song

One of the biggest shifts in writing in the 2010s has been the explosion of self-publishing. At the vanguard of this in genre fiction were SF author Hugh Howey (writer of the Silo series starting with Wool) and fantasy author Michael J. Sullivan, whose Ririya Revelations series, throwing back to an older, more traditional form of fantasy, was a major success.

The success of the Ririya series inspired the publishers, Orbit, to take another look at the self-publishing sphere. With collaborative websites where self-publishing writers could look for feedback and Amazon providing avenues for self-publishing to work, there was lots to choose from but one book stood out. Blood Song (2012) by Anthony Ryan is a fairly traditional epic fantasy, with a band of brother warriors, feuding empires, massive battles and so on, but it is notable for its above-average prose and rich characterisation. The perceived wisdom about self-publishing was that books that couldn't get a publishing deal were inevitably rubbish, badly-written or self-indulgent. Blood Song proved this was not the case, and along with its sequels in the Raven's Shadow series has been a huge success.

Other recent fantasy series of note include Helen Lowe's Wall of Night series, John Gwynne's Faithful and the Fallen quartet, Brian McCellan's Powder Mage series, Luke Scull's Grim Company, Sam Sykes's Aeon's Gate trilogy and Brian Staveley's Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne.

If the way epic fantasy writers release their series is changing, so is the way fantasy readers are consuming them. Forums and blogs drove a lot of readers to good new books in the 2000s, but this decade social media has come to the fore. Thriving communities on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit allow readers to find recommendations and pick up books, and the Goodreads site has been hugely successful in getting readers to compare their bookshelves and talk about their finds. Writers of all stripes need to engage with these resources to publicise their books and spread the word, and fantasy writers in particular seem to be very adept at this.

From the dawn of the modern genre of epic fantasy over a century ago to the current explosion of creativity, epic fantasy has always been a hugely popular but critically under-appreciated genre, despite the creativity and intelligence many writers have brought to it (others, who have just wanted to ape Tolkien or Martin, not so much). But today it feels like the genre has finally come of age, no longer shackled to just retelling the same story of farmboys and kings and wizards in a vaguely medieval world again and again. In print, in the cinema, on TV screens and in video games, the genre is being used to tell increasingly interesting and challenging stories. Long may this continue.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015


There's been a few articles around on the Internet commenting on the three or four Game of Thrones actors in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Which is amusing because there were actually seven (so far):


Max Von Sydow will be playing the Three-Eyed Raven in Season 6 of Game of Thrones, replacing Struan Rodger who appeared briefly in the role in the Season 4 finale. In The Force Awakens he plays Lor San Tekka, the "Vicar of the Force" who appears in the opening minutes of the film.

Gwendoline Christie plays Captain Phasma, who has a small but constant role throughout the film as the commander of Kylo Ren's stormtroopers. On Thrones, of course, she has played the major role of Brienne of Tarth since the second season.

Thomas Brodie-Sangster played Jojen Reed on Game of Thrones in Seasons 3 and 4. In The Force Awakens he plays Thanisson, an Imperial comtech on the Resurgent-class Star Destroyer Finalizer. He reports Poe and Finn stealing a TIE Fighter and promptly gets fried when Finn opens fire on the control tower.

Mark Stanley played Grenn, a ranger of the Night's Watch, in Game of Thrones but was killed off fighting a giant during the Battle of the Wall in Season 4. In The Force Awakens he only appears in flashback as one of the Knights of Ren. He is credited as "Clan Leader", so he may be a more senior member of the knights.

Miltos Yerolemou played Syrio Forel, First Sword of Braavos, in the first season of Game of Thrones. In The Force Awakens he can be spotted in Maz Kanata's bar.

Emun Elliott played the ill-fated singer Marillion in the first season of Game of Thrones, accompanying Tyrion and Catelyn to the Eyrie before having his tongue graphically removed on Joffrey's orders. In The Force Awakens he plays a Resistance offer in their base, and is present at the briefings on the capabilities of the Starkiller.

Jessica Henwick is Nymeria Sand on Game of Thrones, introduced in the fifth season. In The Force Awakens she plays a character variously named as Jess Testor or Jessika Pava, an X-wing fighter pilot in Poe Dameron's squadron. She takes part in the final assault on Starkiller Base.

The reason for all the crossovers? Well, The Force Awakens and Game of Thrones principally cast their roles from the United Kingdom, which has a big pool of actors but with so many roles to cast between series and film it's unsurprising there would be a crossover or two by chance. More to the point, the two share a production member in common, Nina Gold, commonly rated as the finest casting director in the business. It'll be interesting to see who crops up in the sequels and spin-offs.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS questions and answers

The Force Awakens is a very good movie, but in its quest to avoid over-explaining everything (a key mistake of the prequel trilogy) it sometimes leans too far in not providing answers or clarity to key questions about the story. So this is an attempt to address some of those issues, drawing on interviews and some of the supporting materials.


A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 33

They say money makes the world go round, or in the case of 2008, fly out of control, keel over and explode. But it's also kind of boring to talk about for any length of time. Economics and trade routes, as we learned from The Phantom Menace, does not make for a compelling drama.

That may not be entirely true, however. Economics is the driver of history, demanding technological progress and inspiring political change. War may be the crossroads of history, but often it results from economic demands: the need for more resources, more territory or more people.

Fantasy and economics at first sound like uneasy bedfellows: "You must journey to West of the Moon and East of the Sun, but be aware of the tollboth on the Starlight Bridge and make sure you exchange your currency before entering Fairyland, their banks have harsh rates." But epic fantasy, with its focus on worldbuilding, dabbles in the art of money more often than you would suppose.

Some authors are better at this than others. Some authors will have heroic adventurers fighting against the forces of evil but then at the end of the book the local plucky king will summon up an army of ten thousand men in five minutes. C.S. Lewis did not delve hugely into Narnia's socio-economic foundation. But other authors have looked into it in surprising detail.

The action of The Hobbit is driven by pride and honour and revenge and nationalism, but it's also driven by money. The dwarves of Erebor have been impoverished by the loss of the Lonely Mountain and its wealth, and it's partially to reclaim that wealth that Thorin's Company sets out on its quest. Later, when the mountain is retaken, the people of Laketown understandably request a (probably negligible) piece of the action after the dwarves inadvertently awaken Smaug and he destroys the city in response. Otherwise there's a good chance the Laketowners will starve. The Lord of the Rings takes this to new levels, with Gondor's military weakness (despite its substantial size and population) pointed out to be a result of incessant military adventuring with Umbar and the Haradrim and issues with the lack of decent trading partners as a result.

So economics can provide a character motivation - Conan and Cugel the Clever's adventures are inspired more by financial needs than heroism, or in the latter's case, sheer bad luck - but can also provide the background to the entire action of the book. Several recent fantasy sagas and novels have delved more into this area.

Rise of a Merchant Prince

Published in 1995, Rise of a Merchant Prince is the second novel in Raymond E. Feist's Serpentwar Saga. The primary storyline of this four-book series involves the sinister Emerald Queen raising an army on the distant continent of Novindus and, aided by magic, demons and mercenaries from another world, sailing it across the ocean to invade the Kingdom of the Isles. In the second book in the series a young man named Roo Avery becomes a financier, banker and provider of goods and services in the city of Krondor. The threat from across the sea recedes into the background, with the kingdom and city preparing for war, as Roo rises from obscurity to wealth and success, but finds it cannot bring him happiness.

These sequences are strongly influenced by the history of London and Amsterdam, particularly the explosion in their mercantile power in the late Renaissance, early pre-modern period. This period, covered in exception detail in Neal Stephenson's historical Baroque Cycle, saw the development of what Sir Isaac Newton called "The System of the World," the birth of the modern capitalist system, and the bewildering situation as kings and emperors and popes found that their word was no longer enough to get things done but the word of a banker could shift mountains. In Rise of a Merchant Prince the same transformation is taking place, and it's fascinating to see princes and generals having to argue with bankers about how to finance their massive armies and defensive walls and all that other good fantasy furniture.

Arguably, Rise of a Merchant Prince is Feist's last unambiguously "good" novel (even the very next one, Rage of a Demon King, sees Feist getting into structural issues, workmanlike prose and continuity errors that would blight the remainder of the Riftwar Cycle) and the last one he wrote that did something remarkably different. But it did show, unlike The Phantom Menace, that economics can make for a good fantasy novel.

A Dance with Dragons

A Song of Ice and Fire has done a lot of things, but one thing it hasn't really been credited for is focusing on the economic realities of medieval life. Medieval warfare was cripplingly expensive. Taking peasants out of the fields might give you a large army, but training and equipping them could be ruinous for all but the very richest lords. Throwing a massive tournament might be cool, but it might also throw you into crippling debt. And if your kingdom is threatened with invasion at short notice, you might need a politically inconvenient foreign loan to help you defeat it, at the cost of your economic independence for the next few decades.

One of the primary players in A Song of Ice and Fire, and arguably the most successful, is Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish. Unlike most of the characters in the series, Littlefinger is a self-made man. His birth on the smallest of the Fingers, a rocky and barren peninsula, was so low he might as well have been a peasant. His prospects would have been poor, but he made himself useful to Lord Arryn by taking control of the taxes in Gulltown and making the port turn a comfortable profit. As Master of Coin in King's Landing, he increased the crown's incomes tenfold (although King Robert Baratheon's expenditures went up by almost the same amount) through canny deals and tax ideas. His grasp of the political game is as assured as the economic one as well.

Almost as astute are the Iron Bank of Braavos, a formidable and utterly independent financial institution. Located behind the impregnable fleets of Braavos, the Iron Bank almost single-handedly brings down the rule of Queen Cersei Lannister when they call in their debts in the Seven Kingdoms overnight when she tries to delay payments, making them also more amenable to striking deals with the Night's Watch and the rival King Stannis Baratheon. What seems like a reasonable, short-term decision made smugly behind the walls of the Red Keep turns out to be a horrendously bad one on the global scale.

A similar issue of short-termism arises when Daenerys Targaryen conquers the city-states of Slaver's Bay and ends the practice of slavery. A laudable, humane decision. However, Daenerys struggles to find something viable to replace it. The former slaves are now paupers living on the streets, the former slave-owners hate her and the economic system of most of the known world has been disrupted, leading to distant nations who've never heard of Daenerys sending ships and armies against her. In reality, slavery and serfdom were phased out in Europa and America over the course of more than a century, as economic realities shifted and allowed much greater expenditure on labour. Trying to do it overnight in a bloody revolution sounds cool, but it throws the system of Essos's world out of balance with nothing to correct it. Ironically, many of the slaves end up living far worse-off lives after Dany's arrival than before.

Midnight Tides

The fifth volume of Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen introduces the Empire of Lether, a mercantile superpower dominating its continent. Lether is a capitalist nation, believing in the free market but under a strong central government that can field impressive armies due to effective taxation. Lether is a nod at traditional Western notions of capitalism, accompanied by witty commentary on the notion's crazier aspects from the characters of Tehol and Bugg. When the Crippled God empowers the Tiste Edur tribes of the north to invade the Letherii Empire with an unstoppable new force of sorcery, the Letherii are unable to hold them back since they can't buy them off. Later books indicate that the greed and venality of Letherii culture has started to corrupt their conquerors, and it's only when the cynical Tehol takes control of the empire and begins reshaping it to his whims that it appears that the Empire's self-destructive ways may change.

Steven Erikson does satire very well throughout the Malazan novels, but Midnight Tides (2004) is the one that arguably hits the hardest. The target - American-style Darwinian capitalism - is an easy one but Erikson still makes some excellent points about economic imperialism.

Making Money

Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels tackle many features of modern life through a satirical fantasy lens, so it's unsurprising that economics come up a lot. It can be seen in Small Gods ("Thou shalt not submit thy god to market forces!") but it forms a running thead through the Moist von Lipwig story. In this sequence - Going Postal (2004), Making Money (2007) and Raising Steam (2013) - the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork decides to recruit a former con artist to help him transform the city from a post-medieval slum into a modern powerhouse. He does this by placing Lipwig in charge of first the postal service, then the banks and then the new rail service linking Ankh-Morpork to more distant cities. In each case, Lipwig's natural charm and wit allow him to succeed in furthering his own fortunes and that of the city. A future novel may have put Lipwig in charge of the city's tax services, but Pratchett's sad passing in 2015 prevented this from being explored further.

A Shadow in Summer & The Dragon's Path

Fantasy author Daniel Abraham exploded onto the scene with his Long Price Quartet (2006-09), set in an unusual fantasy world where magic - and thus power - is based around the control of the andats, spirits bound to the control of sorcerers - poets - but who hold tremendous power. The books examine the social, political and economic consequences of the Khaiem city-states holding such power over other nations, such as the empire of Galt, and the ramifications of what happens when a way of neutralising the andat is discovered. The Long Price Quartet is arguably the finest epic fantasy series of the last ten years, with its focus on character, morality and tragedy, and is helped by the depth with which the premise is explored.

Abraham has since gone on to greater success as part of the writing team known as James S.A. Corey, he is co-creator of the Expanse science fiction series and its ongoing TV adaptation. He has also been writing his own solo epic fantasy series, The Dagger and the Coin (2011-16), commencing with The Dragon's Path. This five-volume series is much more driven by its examination of economics, banking and finance. One of the main characters is a banker working in an institution based on the Medici bank, whose financial acumen is as critical (if not more so) than the military power wielded by the great nations. However, even this power is challenged by the rise of a disturbing religion and its increasing stranglehold on one of the great empires of the continent.

Other fantasy authors have delved into matters financial, such as Scott Lynch's excellent The Lies of Locke Lamora and K.J. Parker's superb The Folding Knife. Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles novels feature lengthy - and some may argue too lengthy - sequences deling with student financies in a magical institution. Brandon Sanderson's novels usually nod at the economic underpinning behind each of his worlds (although so far a magic system based on money hasn't quite materialised, although coins are used as weapons by some of the Mistborn characters). It just goes to show that a good fantasy author can make even the most mundane facet of ordinary life work in a fantasy context.

Our story is nearly complete. We have travelled from before the 20th Century into the early 21st, and looked at the rise of the genre and its explosion into being the most popular genre of the modern age. All that is left to do is bring the story up to date.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

How do you go about resurrecting the most iconic movie series of all time, especially after its reputation has been tarnished by prequel films of, at best, mixed quality? It's a question that was confronted by a video game company called BioWare in 2003 when they made a game called Knight of the Old Republic. Their solution was to go back to basics, gathering a crew made up of new characters but riffing off familiar archetypes, visiting a couple of familiar locations and then fighting a strangely familiar final battle on a massive space station, but with a different context and their own unique, killer twist.

Whether J.J. Abrams ever played Knights of the Old Republic is unknown, but he certainly takes the same approach when it comes to resurrecting Star Wars. The Force Awakens is a film that cribs liberally from the original trilogy (especially A New Hope) whilst also establishing its own new, core cast of heroes and villains. This is a movie that sees the generational torch being passed from Luke, Leia and Han to a new trio of heroes made up of Finn, Rey and Poe Dameron, along with plucky helper droid BB-8, and does so with aplomb.

From the opening crawl - which doesn't mention tax disputes or politics - the creators of this movie are on high alert not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Character motivations are established firmly and communicated to the audience effectively. The villains and heroes are clearly delineated, action sequences are heavy on CGI but filmed with long, graceful shots which allow you to follow what's going on, and the music is evocative throughout. There are weaknesses, niggles and problems, some of them more pressing than others, but in the most general terms The Force Awakens is easily the best Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi, both being a highly enjoyable stand-alone space opera film but also one that lays essential groundwork to be built on in the following movies.

The acting is strong across the board. The toughest job falls to Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as our new main characters, Rey and Finn, and both deliver credible, compelling performances (Ridley, in particular, not just steps up to the mark but smashes through it in several key moments). Oscar Isaac is also excellent as Poe Dameron, giving us a new, roguish pilot character but also one who is a patriot and professional soldier. Harrison Ford also excels as the older, more haunted and more conflicted Han Solo, driving the film on with his still-formidable charisma. On the villain side, Adam Driver takes a very different tack to Kylo Ren than some of the Dark Side antagonists we've seen in the past, one who is as nervous and occasionally uncomfortable in his training in evil as Luke was in training to be a Jedi. This gives Ren immense humanity and makes him an altogether more interesting (and dangerously unpredictable) villain. Andy Serkis gives a mocap performance as Supreme Leader Snoke which is downright weird and surreal, injecting a near-David Lynch's Dune level of bizarrity into what is a mostly straightforward action film. We'll presumably learn more about Snoke in future movies, but the hints we have here are of a rather different kind of evil than the Emperor or the Sith.

On the more disappointing side of things, Domhnall Gleeson is a rather one-note villain as the First Order's military commander, General Hux (I get the impression he was channelling Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin and falling rather short) and Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma is extremely under-utilised.

On the production side, the film has a lot of excellent design work, some phenomenal musical cues from John Williams and some satisfying lightsabre duels. If the original trilogy's lacked scale and the prequel trilogy's relied too much on CG fakery, The Force Awakens's duels are earthier, more grounded and feel like they hurt a lot more. The space and aerial battles are also excellent: one long shot of an X-wing gunning down a series of TIE Fighters outclasses every dogfight in the prequel trilogy in the space of a few seconds.

As mentioned earlier, there are issues. Star Wars has always had a flexible attitude towards scientific realism (i.e. pretty much ignoring it) but there are couple of moments where The Force Awakens seemingly abandons the most basic laws of physics and plausibility. These actually stand out because of the restraint and greater nods at realism elsewhere. There's also a couple of moments when the movie goes too far in its quest to avoid exposition. The film does a great job (as the original trilogy did and the prequels notably did not) of allowing audiences to fill in the blanks in the backstory themselves, but in one scene its refusal to explain what's happening led to some extreme confusion amongst the audience and made them think something far more apocalyptic had happened than actually had. There was also not a lot of explanation of the relationships between the Empire, the First Order, the Rebel Alliance, the New Republic and the Resistance. Some of this should be filled in upcoming films, but there was a bit too much left unexplained at this point.

Overall, however, The Force Awakens (****) does exactly what is asked of it. It delivers an entertaining (but not disposable) two hours of entertainment, fun, humour and occasional, deep character exploration. There's a couple of moments of real pathos and tragedy in this movie which I wasn't expecting, moments of humanity and a desire to wrong-foot and surprise the audience but always in a manner that is consistent with what has gone before. It's also, by far, J.J. Abrams's best movie. The film is on general release right now.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

HOMEWORLD: DESERTS OF KHARAK announced for release on 20 January

Homeworld: Shipbreakers is no more. Instead, Blackbird's Homeworld prequel game is now called Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. The game will be published by Gearbox on 20 January.

The new game is set one century before the events of Homeworld, at a time when the kiithid (clans) of Kharak are fighting hostile raiders based in the deep southern deserts. When an orbital satellite discovers an anomaly in the southern hemisphere that hints at a powerful, unknown technology, the kiithid must unite to send forces into the southern hemisphere to seize it...only to run into opposition.

Deserts of Kharak is a ground-based realtime strategy game which chronicles the struggles of a kiithid military expedition led by one Rachel S'jet (likely an ancestor of Karan S'jet, who plays a major role in Homeworld and Homeworld 2) to uncover the secrets locked in the deep desert. If you've played the original games, of course, you'll already know what this is, but Blackbird and Gearbox have thrown in some surprises and complications to the story we thought we knew. Whether they can do so organically or if some hefty retconning will be involved remains to be seen.

The game consists of a 13-mission single-player campaign and online multiplayer.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is available to pre-order on Steam right now, with Homeworld: Remastered owners eligible for a 20% discount.

Gearbox have previously said that if Homeworld: Remastered and Deserts of Kharak did well, they would strongly consider making a space-set Homeworld 3 in the future.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Independence Day 2 trailer

I never asked for this. You never asked for this. The world never asked for this. But we've got it anyway.

The film is set in 2016, twenty years after the original movie but in (obviously) a parallel timeline. The world came together to defeat the alien threat in the first film but the aliens did manage to get off a distress call before their mothership was destroyed. The world has spent two decades retrofitting captured alien technology to create new weapons and defences, including an early warning system on the Moon and advanced fighters using alien propulsion systems and weapons. Scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) has been leading the attempts to prepare for the return of the aliens, but fears they are not ready. When a second, considerably larger and more powerful alien mothership arrives, his fears are soon realised.

Judd Hirsch, Bill Pullman, Brent Spiner and Vivacia Fox are reprising their roles from the first film (in Spiner's case, it's unclear how as his character was fairly graphically killed off) and will be joined by a new cast of actors, including Liam Hemsworth and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Will Smith will not be returning, the studio apparently balking at the $50 million he demanded to appear in the film and a potential sequel.

 This time, they're ready for us.

At the moment only Independence Day: Resurgence has been confirmed, but the project was in development as a two-part film for many years. If this remains the case and a third film is expected, I would be concerned that the film may end on a cliffhanger.

Apparently the film will play up the role of other nations fighting the alien threat as well as the USA. For example, a Chinese fighter squadon is expected to play a role in the plot.

The movie will be released on 24 June, 2016.

You can buy STAR WARS oranges

As a sign that the merchandising for The Force Awakens may have gone a tad overboard, Disney have released Star Wars-themed oranges for sale. Behold:

Guaranteed to boost your midichlorian count.

They're oranges. I was thinking maybe each orange had been carved into a replica of the Death Star, but no, they're just oranges. The only Star Wars link I can find is that BB-8 is on the packaging and he looks a bit like an orange, I guess? Maybe?

You can also get Yoda grapes.

"Nutritious, these are. Purchase, please do. A new conservatory, I needed. Just me not by my size, but paid, Yoda gotta be."

I'm going to extrapolate that the link here is that grapes are green, Yoda is green, etc.

The sales blurb:
Disney Consumer Products (DCP) brings the power of the Force to the produce aisle, unveiling new healthy Star Wars branded fruit and veggie offerings to celebrate the addition of Lucasfilm to The Walt Disney Company’s Healthy Living Commitment. Just in time for the December release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, families can enjoy Star Wars-themed bagged apples by Sage, citrus fruit by Dayka Hackett, carrots by Kern Ridge and grapes with Yoda-themed packaging by Four Star, which all meet nutritional guidelines put in place by The Walt Disney Company. A sampling of the new product line will be revealed at the PMA Fresh Summit Convention & Expo October 23-25 in Atlanta, Georgia (Booth #5129).

John T. King, vice president of licensing, consumables, Disney Consumer Products comments, “Supporting parents by offering healthy, nutritious options for their kids is of utmost importance to The Walt Disney Company and adding family-favourite Star Wars to our licensed fruit and veggies portfolio is a natural extension of our commitment in this space.”

More than 4.3 billion servings of Disney and Marvel-branded fruits and vegetables have been served in North America since DCP began tracking in 2006.
The prophecy has come true:

A Force Awakens flamethrower has not been officially confirmed at this time.

The Last Kingdom: Season 1

AD 866. Uhtred, the Northumbrian Ealdorman of Bebbanburg, is slain in battle with raiders and his son, also called, Uhtred, is captured by Danes. Uhtred's spirit amuses one of the warriors, Ragnar, who decides to keep him and raise him as a slave and servant. When Uhtred saves Ragnar's daughter Thyra from another Danish boy, Ragnar adopts him into his household and teaches him the Danish art of war.

A decade later, Ragnar is betrayed and murdered by an affronted rival. Uhtred and a servant, Brida, escape. Learning that his uncle has usurped his father's seat, Uhtred decides to seek refuge in Wessex to the south. With Northumbria and Mercia overrun by the Danes and East Anglia under attack, Wessex is now the last surviving free Saxon kingdom in England. There Uhtred gains service with the king's brother, Alfred. Alfred is a visionary who sees a single great nation called England rising from the ashes of the Saxon kingdoms and the Danish strongholds...a nation that will need a great, first king.

The Last Kingdom is a television adaptation of the novel series of the same name by Bernard Cornwell, Britain's foremost and most popular writer of historical fiction. Cornwell's work has been adapted to the screen before, most notably his Sharpe series (starring a then-unknown Sean Bean) about a fictional officer raised from the ranks during the height of the Napoleonic Wars. The Last Kingdom is an earthier, harsher series where life is cheaper but also arguably more passionate. The series may have been inspired by the success of Game of Thrones, like so many others, but The Last Kingdom differs from them in one key respect: it's very, very good.

The first season adapts the first two novels in the series, The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horsemen. The through-line of the season is Uhtred's attempt to find a home where he can be accepted. Among the Danes, his Northumbrian birth causes some to look down on him, but amongst the Saxons his Danish upbringing is viewed with suspicion. His refusal to convert to Christianity also makes life difficult at the court in Winchester. Several times he offends his patron, Alfred of Wessex (the later King Alfred the Great), and he earns the enmity of several powerful noblemen, such as Odda the Younger. He does take an English wife, which helps with his image, but this causes further problems when their different backgrounds, religions and outlooks clash.

The series is clever enough to paint Uhtred as a deeply flawed human being. He is young and for all of the harshness of his times and the need to grow up quickly he can still be hotheaded, precipitous and foolish. His brashness and bravery is instrumental in achieving several victories and surviving ambushes, but also works against him as he blunders through the intricacies of court politics. Fortunately, various allies such as the priest Beocca and the great Wessex warrior Leofric are on hand to help him survive.

The series succeeds because of excellent writing, which borrows from the books but also mixes in other historical ideas, and tremendous performances. Alexander Dreymon's surly performance as Uhtred kind of grates until you realise he's supposed to be surly and arrogant, and this lessens over the series as he learns (more or less) humility. David Dawson is also nothing less than exceptional as Alfred, the bookish and quiet younger brother of the king who acts as his spymaster and chief diplomat who then unexpectedly is given the throne and crown despite a lack of charisma or battlefield skills. The fact that he somehow overcomes these problems to become the only English king in twelve centuries to ever be acknowledged "The Great" at first seems implausible, but his growth and evolution over the eight episodes leaves you in no doubt that this is a great man, a statesman who prefers reasoned dialogue but is prepared to use force when necessary. Adrian Bower gives an excellent performance as Leofric, and Leofric and Uhtred's "bromance" gives rise to many excellent moments of humour and comradeship. Female characters are also not forgotten, with Emily Cox giving a convincing conflicted performance as Brida, Uhtred's first love who cannot abandon her Danish ties. Charlie Murphy is also excellent as Iseult, the "Shadow Queen" of Cornwall, and Amy Wren gives a dignified performance as Mildrith, Uhtred's highly reluctant bride. Eliza Butterworth also has a tough role as Queen Aelswith, who initially appears to be very one-note, but later nuance is introduced to the character in a convincing manner.

In fact, all of the performances are excellent, helped by the quality script and great production values. The show is clearly made on a much tighter budget than Game of Thrones - the eight episodes in this first season apparently cost considerably less than just two episodes of Thrones - but delivers some impressive sets, visuals and battle sequences anyway.

If there are any weaknesses it's that the show can be a tad confusing at times, especially in its failure to show the passage of time. It's not made clear, for example, that months pass between some of the episodes, leading to the appearance of the Danes making peace and then breaking it almost instantly. There's also an issue with foreshadowing given that Uhtred is established as primarily wanting to retake his homeland of Bebbanburg but this ambition is then put on the backburner for most of the season. If the next season adapts the third and fourth novels in the series (as seems likely), this storyline should return to prominence then.

The first season of The Last Kingdom (****½) has a bit of a slow start but then transforms into a highly compelling, enjoyable slice of historical drama. It is available in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) now and will be released in the USA (on DVD only, controversially) on 6 January.

Wertzone Classics: The Wire - Season 4 (HD)

On 28 December 2008 I reviewed the fourth season of The Wire. I recently completed rewatching the season thanks to the recent HD re-release, courtesy of HBO, and here's the original review with some updated thoughts.

The fourth and penultimate season of The Wire sees the show moving into new territory. At the end of Season 3 the Barksdale organisation was finally destroyed for good, McNulty found himself some happiness and Daniels got a promotion. The goals set out in Season 1 had been achieved. So, where next for the Major Crimes Unit and the players of the game?
Season 4 follows several storylines in tandem. The MCU is now chasing down Marlo Stanfield, whose organisation has picked up from where Barksdale left off and now rules over most of the western district of Baltimore. However, their rise to power has apparently been accomplished with virtually no deaths, bemusing Lester Freamon. With the wiretaps also coming up empty, Freamon's attempts to follow the money trail attract the ire of his superiors and pretty soon the MCU is all but shut down and Freamon and Kima end up working in Homicide instead. Elsewhere, McNulty is enjoying the (relatively) easy life as a beat cop, Daniels is heading up his own force and Carver is maturing as an officer, with only Herc apparently resisting any change, at least until he catches the Mayor's eye (in a rather interesting manner) and finds his star rising as a result. But overall the police side of things, at least to start off with, seems pretty quiet.

On the streets Marlo's rise to power has been achieved with the help of his two enforcers, the terrifyingly cold-blooded and ruthless Chris and Snoop, who have come up with a brilliant scheme to hide the resulting bodies from the police. Proposition Joe, who has inherited most of the surviving Barksdale crew, is continuing his efforts to entice Marlo into the cooperative to little avail, so he hatches a scheme to get Marlo on his side by setting up a war between him and the indefatigable Omar. Unfortunately, this leads to a pretty bloody and complicated state of affairs for all concerned.

Elsewhere, Tommy Carcetti is running for the position of mayor, but the race is a difficult three-way contest between him, the incumbent Royce and fellow councilman Tony Gray. Unfortunately, no sooner is the winner in office then they are delivered two massive problems: how to handle the proven incompetence of police commissioner Burrell when they cannot fire him for political reasons, and the discovery that they have a jaw-dropping $54 million budget deficit due to overspending in the schools.

At the same time, Prez, the former MCU member fired from the force in Season 3 after accidentally killing another officer, has started a new life as a maths teacher. His class is noisy, uncooperative, disrespectful and sometimes shockingly violent (one student slashes another's face open with a razor in his first week). However, the primary narrative for Season 4 focuses on four of the students in Prez's class - Randy, Dukie, Namond and Michael. These are all new characters, although with some ties to existing ones: Namond is the son of former Barksdale enforcer Wee-Bey and Michael is a member of Cutty's gym.

The scaling back of the other characters in favour of following these four youngsters around may seem like an odd move, but it pays off brilliantly. Having tackled the police, criminals, politicians, and dockworkers, Season 4 is about teachers, students and the role of education in shaping the lives of the young. Early in the season a divide is identified between those kids who could make something for themselves and the corner kids who don't want to do anything other than stand on the streets and sell drugs to make money, and where the four main characters fall on that divide and how they swap sides and change over the course of the season is fascinating to watch. At first glance Michael seems to be the most positive and promising of the four, but his interest in sports and growing cooperation in class hides a bitter and painful home life that soon leads him into Marlo's circle, whilst happy-go-lucky Randy makes a series of mistakes that prove costly. In fact it's Namond, who is selling drugs from the start and being schooled for a life of crime by his father from behind bars, who undergoes the most interesting and seismic shifts in character, all depicted through the brilliant-as-usual writing and some fine performances from the young actors involved.

Andre Royo as Bubs also has to be singled out for mention, as Bubs hits rock-bottom in this season and Royo's depiction of a man whose already crappy life disintegrates completely is absolutely stunning. At the same time, Dominic West's low availability for the season means that McNulty doesn't appear very much, meaning more screen time for Freamon (Clarke Peters) and Bunk (Wendell Pierce), which is a very welcome move. McNulty does return to prominence in the last two episodes, which set up the direction of the final season pretty well.

The Wire: Season 4 (*****) is as superbly-written, brilliantly funny, expertly-acted and stomach-churningly tragic as ever, except possibly even moreso than the first three seasons. If there is a negative point, it's that Season 4 is the most epic and sprawling season to date, and it takes a while for all the disparate storylines to start pulling together. But when they do, the result is the most powerful and gripping final run of episodes yet. Season 4 of The Wire is available on DVD in the UK and USA and also as part of the complete series box set (UK, USA).

Updated Thoughts

Rewatching the fourth season of The Wire, the question arises: is this merely the greatest season of the show (although it's a close battle with Season 1) or actually the greatest season of any TV show ever made? On a first run it's easy to say no, that the season takes too long to come together in any meaningful way and there are way too few victories. On a rewatch you realise that's the point.

The season is deliberately disjointed: the Major Crimes Unit is deliberately and systematically run into the ground, there's a heavy political storyline with Carcetti running for mayor that feels shut off from what's going on in the street and there's stuff going on in the school that feels disconnected from everything else. Compared to the determined focus and easy-to-determine through-line of the three previous seasons, Season 4 sprawls in all directions.

But the sprawl is an illusion. As Lester Freamon told us in Season 1, "All the pieces matter" and this remains true in the fourth year. Eventually all the little, apparently throwaway moments align with the core storyline of Marlo Stanfield's murderous rise to dominance over the Baltimore underworld impacting on the police, the political system and, most heartbreakingly, in the schools where the young children's best hope for a good life is undermined by an unfeeling system obsessed with statistics over humanity and by street hustlers looking for kids to use as couriers and look-outs. If the season has an emotional core, it's provided by Roland Pryzbylewski, played with tremendous restraint and heart by Jim True-Frost. Prez was the former police officer who shot up a tower block back in Season 1 and idiotically blinded a child for no real reason, but by this season has grown into a more fully-rounded figure. His new role as a teacher in a tough, inner-city school confronts him with astonishing horrors - kids who are clearly emotionally traumatised, abused or mentally disturbed but whom the system refuses to help - but instead of zoning out or quitting like so many others, he tackles the situation head-on and eventually manages to help some (but not all) of his students.

The season is really the story of four of those students - Michael, Dukie, Namond and Randy - and each of their story arcs is told with humanity and skill. The actors are outstanding and the conclusion of each of their story arcs is note-perfect. Only one arguably ends up happy. The ending confronted by Randy is utterly heartbreaking, and the audience sides fully with Detective Carver, formerly a police officer who said he never cared too much and only enjoyed breaking heads, as he finally loses control at the absolute inhumanity and bureaucratic incompetence of the system he works for.

There are so many other moments of emotional perfection, perfect performances, cutting political observation or humour (and for all its reputation as a realistic examination of the modern western city, The Wire can also be the funniest thing on the planet) in the season that it'd be impossible to list them all. Suffice to say, that when the dust settles and the history of the Golden Age of Television is written, this collection of thirteen episodes will almost certainly emerge as its crowning achievement.

The Wire complete series blu-ray set is available now in the UK and USA.

Wertzone Classics - Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi

The story behind Return of the Jedi, the troubled concluding movie in the original Star Wars trilogy, is as fascinating as the movie itself. Originally, George Lucas had planned an epic story in which Luke would defeat Darth Vader and score a major victory for the Rebels, but the Emperor would survive and the Empire would remain intact, not to be destroyed until the then-planned sequel trilogy. However, burned out on the franchise and afflicted by personal troubles, Lucas elected to change things mid-planning to wrap up the entire story in the third film. A second Death Star was introduced as the maguffin of the film and a planned battle involving armies of Wookiees led by Chewbacca was removed in favour of the more kid-friendly Ewoks. Producer Gary Kurtz left in disgust at the changes and Lucas brought in Richard Marquand, a somewhat obscure choice, to direct the film. Unlike on The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas was a constant presence on Return of the Jedi, directing some sequences personally.

The result is a curiously uneven film but one that ultimately does its job of rounding off the story. Although hardcore fans moan about it, wrapping up the story in three films rather than six was probably the better idea. It does mean that the Emperor, who only had a cameo in the previous movie, has very little screen time in the original trilogy before his demise but the prequels do (if nothing else of value) help establish him a bit more as the ultimate villain of the saga.

Most Star Wars films consist of three distinct acts or sections, and Return of the Jedi does the same thing. The opening sequence where our heroes rescue Han Solo from evil gangster Jabba the Hutt is well-paced but potentially a little too easy given the huge amount of set-up for the kidnapping plot in Empire. Jabba as an unreasonable, murderous villain is also a little out of keeping with his more bumbling, comical role in The Phantom Menace and the New Hope special edition, but that's more of a problem with those films than this one. Still, there's some funny moments and a great action sequence in this opening section before we're off to the forest moon of Endor. This bit, involving Threepio being mistaken as a god, goes on for way too long but gives us another iconic action sequence with the speeder bikes. The film also does an odd thing in making the Ewoks cuddly and merchandiseable but also has them being savagely vicious in some of these sequences. The Ewoks - the most controversial part of the film for some, marking the start of Lucas's obssession with "doing something for the kids" - aren't actually that annoying by value of the fact that they are shown to have their own culture and beliefs, and when scores of them are gunned down by the Empire in the climactic battle are shown to grieve and get angry to avenge their fellows. They're certainly less annoying than the Gungans.

The climax of the film is a complex battle on three fronts which is complex but very well-handled. We have the epic showdown between Luke and Vader, the battle to bring down the Death Star's shields and the space battle as the Rebel Fleet and the Imperial Starfleet clash in what probably remains the finest space battle ever committed to the screen. The effects work, painstakingly created over a year using miniatures and motion-controlled cameras, is breathtaking and put together with tremendous skill. More important is the showdown between Luke and Vader, with the Emperor seeking to tempt Luke to the Dark Side. This element is not really credible (the Emperor having had a dozen years to corrupt Anakin by being his friend, it seems unlikely he'd expect to do the same to Luke in a few hours of being his captor) but that doesn't matter as Luke finally achieves his destiny, is tempted and rejects the temptation even if it means his own death. It's a strong emotional conclusion to the trilogy that ultimately satisfies.

On the flawed side of things, the Special Edition makes a whole bunch of changes to the film which are mostly pointless. In fact, some of them feel very weird indeed. The scenes showing the people on Coruscant cheering the defeat are strange, a bit like if peopled had been dancing on the street in Berlin to celebrate the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad. The Force Awakens, which confirms that the Empire did not collapse overnight after the Battle of Endor and the struggle continued for years, makes these scenes even odder.

Still, Return of the Jedi (****) may be the most flawed of the original trilogy but it's still a well-handled and entertaining movie that mostly satisfies as a conclusion to the saga. The film is available now as part of the complete (but soon not to be) Star Wars Saga box set (UK, USA).

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Wertzone Classics - Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

What do you do when you've made the most successful movie in the history of movies, made a huge amount of money and are then asked to follow up on it? If you're smart, you hire the best writers in the business and get an off-beat, idiosyncratic director to make the film and bring a different sensibility to it. In 1978, when starting pre-production on his sequel to the original Star Wars, George Lucas chose to be smart. He got renowned pulp SF author (and experienced screenwriter) Leigh Brackett to write the script and, when she sadly passed away, hired a skilled up-and-comer named Lawrence Kasdan to polish her draft. He also asked Irvin Kershner to direct the movie when he realised that just financing and retaining creative control of the movie was going to be a full-time job.

With Lucas mostly hands-off in production (returning to help with the Dagobah scenes but leaving Kershner and Gary Kurtz to oversee production elsewhere), the result was the least-typically-made of the Star Wars movies. It was by far the most collaborative, with the actors invited to help brainstorm ideas and alterations to the script. This was particularly important for Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford to sell the romance between the Leia and Han Solo that had to rely on the implication of a lot of things having happened off-camera in the gap between the two movies. The fact they manage to sell the romance and make it convincing with very limited screentime is a tribute to the collaborators involved, and a far cry from the dismal failure in Attack of the Clones to have Amidala and Anakin do the same thing.

Elsewhere the film benefits from a counter-intuitive plot and structure. The film opens with what should have been a massive climactic battle and then downscales from there, with much of the film concerned with the attempts of the Millennium Falcon crew to escape from the Imperial Fleet and Luke training in the swamps of Dagobah with Yoda. The film ends with pretty much the good guys losing and things are left on a cliffhanger. It's far cry from the medal-awarding triumphalism of the first movie and one that subverts expectations without coming totally out of left field. The tone and feel of the film has been described as being grimmer than the others, but there's actually quite a lot of humour in the movie. What Empire does the best out of all the films is make the Empire feel like a real, credible threat whilst humanising the characters and making the stakes feel real and the scope larger. It also leaves plot points for the viewer to identify and interpret rather than over-explaining things. The significance of the Dark Side cave on Dagobah and what it says about Luke is reasonably obvious, but the film still does a good job of leaving it up to the audience to draw their own conclusions.

As always, the design work is incredible, the special effects are excellent and still stand up well (even puppet Yoda looks and feels realer than the CG creature in the prequels) and John Williams delivers what may be the best score out of the six films (although it's a close tie with The Phantom Menace). But what makes The Empire Strikes Back the best of the six films (controversial opinion, I know) is the combination of good writing, great acting from performers heavily invested in their characters and the decision to give the Empire a real sense of menace and competence, even when they don't have a ridiculous superweapon backing them up.

There are some very minor flaws, mostly relegated to the pointless changes made in the Special Edition (particularly Vader's extremely bizarre "returning to the Executor" sequence) and the under-selling of the time that passes in the film. Apparently it took weeks for the Falcon, limping on a backup hyperdrive, to reach Bespin and Luke also spent weeks (if not months) on Dagobah, but neither span of time comes across well in the film. But these are pretty minimal complaints.

The Empire Strikes Back (*****) is available now as part of the complete (but soon not to be) Star Wars Saga box set (UK, USA).