Saturday, 29 October 2016

Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

Senlin's quest to recover his wife from the Tower of Babel has led him from a quiet life as a schoolteacher to an unlikely new career as an air buccaneer, scouring the skies around the Tower for a way of finding his way back inside. A series of unlikely mishaps leads him and his crew to the domain of the mysterious and enigmatic Sphinx, the master-inventor who oversees everything in the Tower for their own inscrutable - and unscrupulous - purpose. There they must face their greatest and most formidable challenge yet: recovering a book from a library.



Arm of the Sphinx is the second volume of The Books of Babel and the sequel to Senlin Ascends, already the best book I've read this year. Like its forebear, Arm of the Sphinx is a clever, witty, beautifully-written, offbeat and joyously engaging slice of speculative fiction that grabs hold from the first page and doesn't let go until the end.

Arm of the Sphinx is a different novel, however, with the author changing things up. Senlin Ascends was primarily told from Senlin's POV and he was the primary character. In Arm of the Sphinx the viewpoint now expands and we get POV sections from all of the other characters. This fleshes them out in much greater detail, giving each character their own internal and external struggle to deal with, and allows the reader to re-assess Senlin. It was easy to feel sorry for Senlin and motivated to root for him when we saw his viewpoint on everything. When we get to see what others think of him, something of a re-appraisal is in order.

Bancroft also wrong-foots the reader. If you thought this was going to be another whistlestop tour of the ringdoms of Babel with lots of stand-alone-ish adventures in each new locale before we get a fresh clue to Marya's whereabouts and set off again...then you're kind of correct. But things aren't as predictable as that. The new ringdom of the Silk Gardens is bizarre and strange, forming a slightly surreal mini-adventure that doesn't immediately connect to the rest of the book around it. But it's clearly laying groundwork for later events, and I suspct this will turn out to be a very key episode in the series. The rest of the book is set in the Sphinx's domain and sees our heroes split up into smaller groups. We learn a lot about them even as the Sphinx does, but we also learn more about the Sphinx and the ultimate purpose of the Tower, which starts moving things in a more SF direction. However, we also learn some more about the world, and can start forming more of an idea if this is supposed to be the Biblical Tower or not.

There's also a harrowing solo adventure for Senlin and the introduction of the best librarian in fantasy fiction since that one that goes "Ook". Arm of the Sphinx packs an awful lof of story, character and incident into its pleasingly restrained page count (370 pages in paperback).

Arm of the Sphinx (*****) is available now in the UK and USA. The third book in the series, The Hod King, is due out next year. The author's website is here and you can follow him on Twitter here.

Red Dwarf XI

The mining ship Red Dwarf, lost in deep space for three million years, is continuing its long voyage home. The four-man (well, one-man, one-hologram, one-android and one-bipedal-cat) crew continue to get into unusual scrapes as they seek to survive.



Red Dwarf began way back in 1988, making it easily the longest-running science fiction sitcom in history. Part of the show's success is its mixing of real SF ideas with funny gags and character development rooted in tragedy and pathos: Red Dwarf at its best is not afraid to make its audience feel sorry or even upset as it even makes them laugh.

Unfortunately, the more detailed characterisation and tragedy mostly left the show along with co-creator and writer Rob Grant after the sixth season. Since that time Red Dwarf has, under its other co-writer Doug Naylor, become a much more conventional sitcom with running gags, recurring characters and ideas and topical humour that may be outdated in a few years' time but raises a smile now.

This eleventh season airs four years after the tenth, itself a low-budget attempt to get the show back on the air via the UK cable channel Dave. That was very successful, hence a noticeable budget increase for this season with more visual effects, location filming and more elaborate sets. It's still a long way from the show at the height of its biggest success on the BBC at the end of the nineties (during the seventh and eighth seasons, when the humour risked taking a back seat to the spectacle), but it definitely frees the show up to open up the scale and employ some more highbrow and expensive ideas.

For the most part, it works. Without Grant or another more character-focused writer, the show is never going to be as good as it was back in its brilliant second through fifth seasons (and the only-marginally-weaker sixth), but we're also a long way from the more tedious episodes of the seventh through ninth seasons as well. Naylor seems to be writing within his limitations, knowing that what he's good at is channelling SF ideas for laughs. Some of these misfire - season opener Twentica hits a series of dud gags - but things rapidly improve from there. A vending droid is mistaken for a genius medical bot and is given the task of carrying out vital surgery, Kryten has a mid-life crisis and finds a way of communing with the universe, and - in easily the best episode of the entire series since Season 6 - Rimmer is promoted by a 3D-printed Space Corps officer and finally gets his dream job only for it to all go spectacularly wrong. There's also a couple of Cat-centric episodes which work pretty well.

Continuity is, as usual, treated as something optional, so there's no mention of the missing Kochanski or Holly, which will likely annoy some long-term fans, and the show is a little bit too eager to use simulants and GELFs again rather than creating some new concepts. But the cast is on fine form, even if their age is starting to tell, and even in its weaker moments the season remains firmly entertaining.

No, it's not the show at its best and some of its worst post-Grant indulgences do occasionally resurface, but the eleventh season of Red Dwarf (***½) is overall fun and watchable. It will be released on Blu-Ray (UK, USA) and DVD (UK, USA) in November. Season 12 has already been filmed, is currently in post-production and will air on Dave in mid-to-late 2017.

Rick & Morty: Season 2

Rick and Morty's adventures through space and time continue. The intrepid twosome have to defend Earth from an interstellar musical reality show, avoid the long arm of the galactic law, repair Morty's parents' marriage and attend the wedding of Rick's best friend Birdperson. Needless to say, things go horrendously wrong.



Rick and Morty's first season was by turns hilarious and clever, witty and coarse, smart and nuanced. Few shows even try to employ a fart gag followed by a humorous riff on quantum theory, but Rick and Morty does so with aplomb.

This second season picks up after the first and continues several continuing subplots, such as the dubious state of Beth and Jerry's marriage and Rick's ongoing self-loathing and pain that he is trying to bury through his scientific work. The second season amps these up to eleven, going beyond even the pathos that Season 1 evoked on occasion and hitting poignancy along the way. Like the best SFF comedies (Red Dwarf and Futurama), Rick and Morty succeeds through not just its comedy, but its intelligence and fine grasp of characterisation.

Season 2 revisits some supporting characters from Season 1 like Birdperson but there's also some new characters, such as the enigmatic Poopy Butthole (around whose bizarre character various fan theories of varying credibility circle), and also a willingness to change things up. In Season 1 Earth was unaware of the existence of alien life and higher dimensions. Season 2 rather dramatically changes that up with major ramifications for the rest of the series, showing a willingness to change the format to keep things fresh. There's also more of a willingness to involve Summer, Beth and Jerry on adventures and continue making Morty more of a grown-up, stronger character.

But the star of the show remains Rick, whose brilliance and humour hide a lot of pain and growing existential fear of death. He has flashes of humanity but these are challenged by his amorality, something that previously he didn't care about but now he has family members acting as his moral compass and making him question some things about his life. For an animated TV show with a character called "Poopy Butthole", Rick and Morty does have some damned fine writing.

It's also still brilliantly funny, with Season 2 featuring a brilliant riff on the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Inner Light through a video game called Roy, as well as playing with sitcom conventions when Jerry's hitherto-completely-unmentioned brother Steve shows up to stay, with spectacularly gory results.

Season 2 of Rick and Morty (****½) is available now on DVD (USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA). It is also now available to watch on Netflix in the UK and Ireland. Season 3 is due to start airing in the USA in December or January.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Season 4

The Clone Wars rage on, but the Republic is winning more victories. As Mon Calamari falls under attack and the Republic races to its defence, General Grievous prepares an assault on Naboo which can only be defeated by the Gungans. Meanwhile, on Dathomir Asajj Ventress is offered the chance to rejoin the Nightsisters, but Count Dooku hungers for revenge. And on a remote industrial world, an old enemy of Obi-Wan Kenobi's is gathering his strength.



The Clone Wars enters its fourth season at full steam, ploughing through multiple battles and theatres of war, jumping back and forth through the conflict's timeline with wild abandon and jumping between storylines and characters with glee and confidence. The show makes excellent use of the vast cast of characters it's built up over the three preceding seasons, from bounty hunters to politicians to individual clone troopers, to tell its stories.

We get some of the most impressive battles so far, with the underwater engagements on Mon Calamari bringing some new visuals to the table, and the battle on Umbera, a planet shrouded in darkness, being particularly spectacular. There's also a slew of lower-key storylines, such as Asajj Ventress discovering a new destiny and Obi-Wan Kenobi going undercover in a criminal organisation and being forced to work alongside Cad Bane.

Thre's a tad less emphasis on politics than the previous season, maybe a bit more action but also more of a willingness to go long on storylines, with more multi-part story allowing more time for character development and action scenes. The show's freedom and willingness to experiment is impressive, although there's occasional re-uses of already-done tropes (Jar-Jar getting a meta-textual story in which he saves the galaxy is amusing but overdone; Artoo and Threepio get another - pretty good - solo adventure). The return from the dead of an old enemy in the season finale also crosses the line from "highly implausible" to "utterly unbelievable", even by Star Wars standards. But the show has earned some trust to see where they take this development in the fifth season.

The animation is more impressive than ever before, and by this point the CG team has built up a huge, impressive list of assets they can use to make for ever more-complex and varied scenes. Scenes involving fire, in particular, are much improved.

Season 4 of The Clone Wars (****) continues the show's tendency of being pulp fun, entertaining and more enjoyable than the prequel trilogy it spins off from. It is available now as part of the Complete Season 1-5 box set (UK, USA).

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Doctor Strange

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Brandon Sanderson's COSMERE universe optioned for film

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Unpublished Works
The Mistborn II and Mistborn III trilogies
6 novels

Mistborn: Wax & Wayne
The Lost Metal

The Stormlight Achives
Oathbreaker
Seven further novels 

Dragonsteel
Seven novels

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

Woah.

Bryan Fuller steps down as STAR TREK showrunner

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



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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 24 October 2016

RIP Sheri S. Tepper

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



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

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

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

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

Vikings: Season 1

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




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

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


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

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

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

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

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Rick and Morty: Season 1

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



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

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

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

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

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

Star Trek: Enterprise - Season 1

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 22 October 2016

RIP Steve Dillon

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



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

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

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

Friday, 21 October 2016

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

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



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

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

Thursday, 20 October 2016

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

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


An illustration of Luthien by Ted Nasmith.

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

First footage from the new TWIN PEAKS

Showtime have unveiled the first material from the new Twin Peaks TV series.




This behind-the-scenes video sees the returning actors explaining how much fun the new series has been to make and, er, not a lot else. But given how secretive the project has been so far, that's perhaps to be expected.

The new Twin Peaks will air on Showtime in early-to-mid 2017. The series will consist of approximately eighteen episodes, although this is yet to be confirmed and could change in editing. David Lynch and Mark Frost have written the new series (after writing all of the original series and the Fire Walk With Me movie spin-off) and Lynch has directed the entire series.

It was also recently confirmed that the show's iconic composer Angelo Badalamenti will return to score the new series. It's unclear if the new show will use the original's haunting theme tune, but I'd say it's reasonably likely.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Quantum Break

Jack Joyce is called home to Riverport by his best friend Paul Serene. His brother William has created time travel technology, but in the process has apparently become unhinged. Paul wants Jack to help him complete William's experiments and calm his brother down. However, the experiment goes horrendously wrong, causing a fracture in the space/time continuum. As the fracture grows worse, Jack gains powers over time and space...but so does Paul, who has been flung seventeen years into the past. When he catches up with Jack he is now a different man, with enigmatic motivations...and the same powers Jack has.



Quantum Break is the latest game from Finnish developers Remedy Entertainment. Way back in 2001 Remedy released the iconic action game Max Payne, an epoch-marking title which transformed the action game into a balletic display of violence, bullet time and gritty, noir storytelling. Its sequel, Max Payne 2, remains one of the vanishingly few decent examples of a video game romance ever attempted (and pretty much the only one in an action game). Their 2010 title Alan Wake fused action with survival horror, again set against the backdrop of rich storytelling and a wry sense of humour. Remedy aren't quite like any other developer out there, which is why their games are Day One purchases for me (on PC, anyway).

Quantum Break is very definitely a Remedy game. It's action focused, combat-heavy and uses state-of-the-art graphics technology. The game's propriety Northlight Engine is a technological marvel, offering up both astonishing visuals, (mostly) fluid action and impressive optimisation. I particularly appreciated the fact that the game didn't make my PC run as hot as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided recently did, despite offering superior visuals.

Quantum Break is also a storyline-heavy game, telling its twisting narrative of time loops through both gameplay, in-engine cut scenes and, remarkably, over an hour of live-action video. These videos take the form of TV mini-episodes, filling in the backstory and narrative of what's going on with the antagonists at the same time that Jack is going through his adventures in the gameplay. To maintain continuity, the game features the same actors playing the roles in the live-action pieces as well as lending their appearances and voices for the in-game sequences. These aren't unknowns either, with Shawn Ashmore (X-Men), Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Wire), Lance Reddick (Fringe, The Wire), Dominic Monaghan (Lost, Lord of the Rings), Amelia Blaire (True Blood) and Brooke Nevin (The 4400) all playing major roles.

The game unfolds through gameplay sequences where you investigate a scene or solve puzzles, which often segues into a combat sequence. Fighting consists of standard cover-based shooting (with a rather elegant cover system which simply sees you automatically take cover if you're standing behind something that can be used as such) and also the use of your temporal powers. Interestingly, given Remedy's pioneering use of bullet time, you can't use bullet time as such but you can create temporal shield to freeze bullets in mid-air, trap enemies in stasis bubbles (which you can fire into, so they're instantly hit by hundreds of bullets when time resumes) and set off temporal blasts to throw people through the air. Later in the game enemies appear who can generate their own temporal fields and gain some immunity to your attacks, forcing you to adapt new, more complex strategies. Combat is, mostly, tactical, satisfying and fun.

The game is very narrative-heavy, so if you're after fact action game with limited story, you may want to steer clear. The story is well-told, with a reasonable engagement with the complexities of time travel and temporal paradoxes. There are some plot holes if you think about things too much, but overall the story is an entertaining slice of pulp SF fun with characters you do end up caring about.

It's not a perfect game. There's some jankiness to the controls and occasionally dubious collision detection. The game also severely restricts where you can climb up walls and over obstacles but doesn't give you any way of differentiating these from the areas where you cannot, occasionally leaving you frustratingly bouncing up and down in front of a ledge you really should be able to grab hold of. The game also triggers your frequently-used "time surge" power (which sees you jump forward a dozen feet or so in one go) in the direction your character is facing, not that the camera is facing, occasionally resulting you in hurtling off in unexpected directions. Once you learn to leave a few moments for your character to turn around, it's not really a problem. The live-action TV sequences are also pretty decent - easily the best such things ever created for a video game - but whilst the main cast are excellent (especially Aidan Gillen, who turns in a better performance in the game than he's done in six seasons of Game of Thrones) some of the supporting actors are more enthusiastic than skilled. Oddly, it all fits in with the pulp B-movie feel of the piece.


The game also suffers a little from having a generally smooth difficulty curve, but then featuring several quite ridiculous spikes, with no information context or information being given on how to defeat boss enemies. The final battle with its insta-death enemy attacks, which is easily ten times harder than any other fight in the game, is particularly guilty of this. It's certainly survivable, but it does interrupt the flow of the game.

More impressively, the game has four different "junction" points. At each one of these junctions you have an important decision to make which will change the course of how the story unfolds. Using a temporal vision, you can see some (but not all) of the impacts your choice will make. The game signposts these moments quite clearly, allowing you to note which choice you've made so you can choose differently on a replay. For a linear action game with no multiplayer, such a system is vital to maintain interest and replayability to the game.

Quantum Break (****) is a visually impressive game with dynamic, fun combat and a reasonably good story delivered through sympathetic characters (even the villains are quite well fleshed-out). There's some iffy performances and occasional insane difficulty spikes, but overall this is a very impressive, atmospheric and well-made game. It is available now on PC and X-Box One (UK, USA).

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Wertzone Classics: Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

The Bingtown Traders have grown rich from the use of the liveships, great, sentient sailing ships made of the fabled wizardwood. After three generations of captains die on their decks, they quicken into life. Epheron Vestrit's death brings the liveship Vivacia to life, but the jubilations of the Vestrit family are cut short when it is revealed that the ship will pass into the ownership of Kyle Haven, the husband of Epheron's eldest daughter, rather than to his younger daughter Althea. Furious at this betrayal, Althea vows not to rest until the Vivacia belongs to her again. This resolve only hardens when Kyle decides to use the Vivacia to carry slaves, to the horror of his family.


 
Meanwhile, an unusually eloquent and cultured pirate captain named Kennit schemes to become King of the Pirate Isles. His plotting involves liberating slaver ships, winning the hearts and minds of the people...and finding and capturing a liveship.

Ship of Magic is the first novel in the Liveship Traders trilogy, which takes place in the same world as The Farseer Trilogy but in the lands to the south. There's an almost completely new cast and setting (one major Farseer character does show up in disguise), with most of the action taking place on ships or in dingy port towns. This shift to a nautical setting is refreshing and makes for a very different-feeling novel to the previous books.

The structure of the book also changes. Farseer was told in a first person point-of-view from FitzChivalry Farseer, but The Liveship Traders is told from a rotating POV structure. The major characters are Kennit, Althea, her mother Ronica, sister Keffria, niece Malta and nephew Wintrow, but other POV characters include the Vivacia herself, the beached, mad liveship Paragon and Brashen, another crewman on the Vivacia. This immediately makes for a grander, more epic story as the author moves between different characters.
Whilst this loses the immediacy of the Farseer books and the deep connection with Fitz, it does allow Hobb to cover the story from more angles and explain things more clearly rather than filtering all of the exposition and information through Fitz alone. It's a good move, justifying the novel's impressive page count (over 870 pages in paperback) rather more convincingly than the Farseer books, which felt rather padded out to reach such lengths.

 
Indeed, although I've only to date read Hobb's first six novels, Ship of Magic is easily the best. The story is epic, but it feels tight with naturalistic character development of a large cast and events proceed at a steady clip. Hobb's main skill has always been in the development of a convincing emotional connection to the characters and that skill is in impressive form here. We share Althea's frustration and betrayal, Wintrow's shock and hurt at his relationship with his father Kyle and the casual betrayal of his calling, Ronica's uneasy dealings with the Rain Wild Traders as she tries to protect her family's holdings and Kennit's ambitions as he strives to make his people more than what they are.

Kennit is easily Hobb's most fascinating character to date. He is greedy, selfish and arrogant, but he also has a fast-moving intelligence and wit and altruistic outcomes see to flow from his self-centred acts. Kennit's ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances on the fly and ensure that he always comes out on top is impressive. Kennit clearly has negative characteristics, but it's not entirely clear in Ship of Magic if he is supposed to be a villain. Indeed, it is Kyle Haven who more readily fulfils that role in this book.

Ship of Magic (*****) is an outstanding fantasy novel, and an impressive return to form after the disappointing slog that was Assassin's Quest. The book moves with pace and vigour despite its length, the cast of characters is fascinating, the worldbuilding subtle but convincing, the background politics intriguing and the book moves with tremendous purpose. The ending will leave you eager to read the next book, The Mad Ship, immediately. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday, 14 October 2016

RICK AND MORTY arrives on Netflix UK

Adult Swim's hit animated series Rick and Morty has arrived in the UK thanks to Netflix.



This animated show - co-created by Darn Harmon of Community and HarmonQuest fame - starts off as a bemused and demented homage to Back to the Future, with the Doc Brown-esque Rick and the Marty McFly-riffing Morty teaming up using advanced science to solve problems. However, the similarities pretty much end there. Rick is a high-functioning alcoholic with a detached, almost amoral attitude. Marty is a 14-year-old kid who starts off being described as having learning difficulties, but later episodes establish him as a smart and resourceful kid who grows increasingly impatient with Rick's activities.

The show is anarchic and crazy, moving between stories set on Earth or in Morty's school and bonkers adventures set in outer space or in parallel universes. The series is funny and frequently gross, and occasionally does the South Park thing of suddenly becoming dramatically intense and uncomfortable as it tries to make a satirical point stick. The Week has a good assessment of the show here.

With an accomplished voice cast and some stunning visuals, Rick and Morty is an underrated and highly watchable gem. Season 1 is available on the UK version of Netflix now and Season 2 will apparently follow in the next few weeks. Season 3 is due to start airing in the US in December.

Luke Cage: Season 1

Harlem, New York. Following events in Hell's Kitchen, Luke Cage is laying low. He has two jobs, working in a barbershop by day and in a kitchen by night. A series of chance events lead to the murder of a friend and mentor, so Luke Cage reluctantly breaks out his crime-fighting skills to avenge his friend and find his own identity.



Luke Cage is the third of a planned six-series collaboration between Marvel and Netflix, following on from Daredevil and Jessica Jones and running ahead of Iron Fist, The Punisher and The Defenders, which will see the heroes from the first four series (it doesn't seem that The Punisher, which was a late addition to the project, will cross over in the same way) join forces against a mutual threat. It's definitely one of the most ambitious TV projects that has been mounted in many years.

As a project it's been mostly successful: the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones were excellent, with brilliant acting and strongly-defined villains and thematic elements. The second season of Daredevil, whilst still very watchable, was a little bit more incoherent and lacked a decent enemy. In particular, its pacing was a big problem and the series was drawn out to a slow and meandering ending.

Luke Cage, unfortunately, is weaker still and for many of the same reasons: the story is far too thin to support 13 episodes (it should have been 6 episodes, or maybe 8 tops), the "big bad" of the season is monumentally disappointing and the show's thematic ambitions become muddled to the point where it's impossible to work out what the show is trying to say.

Backing up, the show has plenty of good points. The first half or so of the season is pretty tight, with Luke Cage (Mike Colter reprising the role from Jessica Jones) going up against local gangster Cottonmouth (House of Cards's Mahershala Ali) after his mentor Pop (The Wire's Frankie Fason) is accidentally killed in a shoot-out. At the same time, local cop Misty Knight (Simone Missick) is investigating Cottonmouth's criminal activities and his relationship with his cousin Mariah (Alfre Woodard). There's a nice, tangled-up moral mess to the situation, with Cottonmouth genuinely respecting Pop and losing it after a subordinate kills him unintentionally.

Mid-season things switch up, with Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson reprising the same role from both Daredevil and Luke Cage) joining Team Cage. Cottonmouth's drug supplier Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) then takes over as the main villain after he gets annoyed with Cottonmouth failing to deal with Cage and takes matters into his own hands. It's at this point that the show goes off the rails.

Cottonmouth is an interesting villain, well-played by Ali and featuring a genuine degree of nuance. Diamondback is not. He's a dull thug, played with a near William Shatner level of hamminess by Harvey. The character is deeply boring and when he shows up in a special suit in the final episode to fight Luke Cage, it's unintentionally hilarious. By this point the show has also run out of ideas so it spends three episodes dwelling on the possibility that Luke Cage might die (hint: he doesn't) and two on a deeply tedious hostage situation that feels designed to spin wheels rather than tell a story or develop character.

The show also has a pretty incoherent attitude to format and structure. Most episodes don't have a cold open, but then several do for no real reason. Several episodes feature flashbacks immediately before the information in them become relevant in the present day, which feels lazy and obvious. However, the prison flashback episode is a big winner since it has structure and pacing and tells a complete story in 50 minutes, which none of the other episodes manage.

There are some other bright spots: Misty Knight's police bosses are obstructionist but never stupid, and expertly avoid being cliches. Alfre Woodard is excellent throughout the season, even when her plot turns are less than convincing. The music is brilliant (although Method Man's cameo as himself is completely bizarre).

But these good points only make the show watchable, never exceptional. The tone of the series is all over the place. One moment it feels like the show is making a serious point riffing off the Black Lives Matter movement and the problem of race relations in modern America, but then it runs scared from the idea (in one incongruous moment a white police officer explains his decades-long history of policing in Harlem in detail to make it clear he's not racist). It spends a lot of the time trying to stay "grounded" but then breaks out bazookas and super-powered suits that would have looked cheap on Agents of SHIELD. The police's attitude to Luke Cage also changes at random between episodes, veering from them trying to hunt him down like a dog after being framed as a cop-killer and being okay with them. It's also great to see Claire being given a lot more to do, but it's then a bit odd to see her being reduced to a damsel in distress in several scenes and her potential romance with Luke Cage feels shoehorned into the story for no real reason.

There is a fair bit to enjoy about Luke Cage (***) such as the performances, music and atmosphere, but the pacing is poor, the ultimate villain is deeply boring and the show can never quite make its mind up about what it's trying to say or do. The show is available to watch now on Netflix.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Release date set for Obsidian's TYRANNY

Obsidian Entertainment and Paradox Interactive have joined forces to create a new, old-school CRPG.




Tyranny is set in a world where the traditional battle between good and evil has taken place...and evil has won. The armies of Kyros the Overlord, helped by the powerful Fatebinders, have been victorious and are now restoring order to the world and ensuring the conquered nations know their place. You play a Fatebinder and can choose to enforce Kyros's will or seek to thwart it for your own purposes.

Tyranny uses an upgraded version of the Pillars of Eternity engine and has been completely funded by Paradox (without the need for a Kickstarter). The more robust funding and the fact that the game engine was already in place allowed Obsidian to both make the game much more quickly (Pillars of Eternity was only released eighteen months ago) and focus much more on character, writing and story. Obsidian have also sought to make the game far more reactive to the choices you make in the narrative, making it more akin to the excellent Planescape: Torment (although that has its own, more direct spiritual successor out in a few months from inXile, Torment: Tides of Numenera).


Tyranny has snuck in under the radar a bit, without the full glare of monthly updates and information that Pillars of Eternity got, but it still looks like a classic, interesting and atypical CRPG from one of the best studios in the business. I'll be checking it out.

The game will be released on 10 November, which is less than a month away.

New STAR WARS: ROGUE ONE trailer released

Lucasfilm and Disney have released another full trailer for Star Wars: Rogue One, the new stand-alone prequel movie to the events of A New Hope.




The new trailer expands further on the central storyline: Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is recruited by the Rebel Alliance when they learn that the Empire has been working on a powerful new space station for twenty years. They discover that Erso's father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), is the designer of the station's energy weapon and may know of a weakness. Erso forms an elite infiltration and retrieval squad consisting of blind spiritual warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), expert pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), heavy weapons expert Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), former Onderon rebel leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), reprogrammed Imperial assassin droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) amd Rebel handler Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Their mission is to sneak into the construction site of the space station and retrieve its plans. Needless to say, things soon go wrong and Imperial Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) is soon on their trail for his boss, an apparently mostly off-screen Darth Vader (James Earl Jones).

The trailer gives us some pretty cool new visuals, including our first proper look at Hannibal's Mads Mikkelsen as Galen Erso and our first (very brief) glimpse of Y-wings and AT-STs in the movie.


Galen Erso and his daughter Jyn, when she is a young girl. From their ages and the plot of the tie-in novel Catalyst: A Rogue One Story, this scene takes place about 20-23 years before the events of Rogue One, during the closing stages of the Clone Wars.


An Imperial-clas Star Destroyer hanging out over the planet Jedha.


Galen Erso at an Imperial facility, where he is presumably working on the Death Star's superlaser weapon.


Director Krennic looking villainous.


The Death Star orbiting the planet Scarif, where it is in the final stages of completion.


Bodhi Rook comes up with the "Rogue One" designation for the infiltration squad.


TIE fighters doing a flyby of the Death Star.


The Rebels learn about the Death Star and collectively freak out.


AT-STs are deployed to help detain the Rogue One squad.


Dudes hanging out, possibly on Jedha.


Chirrut Imwe schooling some stormtroopers with his marksmanship (he's blind but can apparently sense the location of living beings through a unique Force connection, although he's not a Jedi and does not use a lightsabre).


Rebel Alliance X-wings attack an Imperial space station above Scarif. I suspect this is during the extraction of the Rogue One team, after the Death Star has departed.



This X-wing pilot looks vexed.


X-wings continue the attack, taking out laser turrets on the station. The Rebel fleet has hyperspaced in behind them, with both Rebel Transports and Nebulon-B frigates visible. There might be a Mon Calamari Star Cruiser in the fleet and there's certainly Mon Calamari in the Rebel base, which will get timeline fans arguing about things (the assumption being that the Mon Calamari didn't join the Rebellion until after The Empire Strikes Back, given the lack of Star Cruisers in the fleet in that film).


Stormtroopers getting blown up. Must be Friday.


The planet Jedha has a very bad day.


Darth Vader turns up for a quiet word with Director Krennic.


Rebel U-wings attempt to extract the Rogue One team from Scarif. The big walkers aren't actually AT-ATs but cargo walkers adapted for defence. It's possible that this film gives the Empire the idea of converting them into dedicated war machines.


Cassian Andor, Jyn Erso and K-2SO sneak into an Imperial base, presumably on Scarif.


The all-important title card.

Star Wars: Rogue One (or Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) will be released worldwide on 16 December.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Netflix acquires international TV rights to THE EXPANSE

In a surprise move, Netflix have acquired global TV distribution rights to SyFy's The Expanse. The exceptions are the USA, where the show continues to air on SyFy; Canada, where it airs on SPACE; and New Zealand, where another distributor has the rights. Netflix will begin streaming Season 1 of The Expanse on 3 November.



The news is surprising as a previous deal with Amazon had been mooted, with it sounding like a done deal. Clearly Netflix put up a superior offer to acquire the show, which has had a patchy international distribution pattern to date.

This is a canny move by Netflix to enhance their space opera programming. Netflix recently acquired the rights to all six Star Trek TV series outside of the US and will show the seventh, Star Trek: Discovery, starting in May 2017.


Meanwhile, Daniel Abraham, co-author of The Expanse novels (alongside Ty Franck, with both writing as James S.A. Corey), has posted an image from Season 2 showing fan-favourite new character Bobbi Draper in her power armour on the surface of Mars.

Season 2 of The Expanse is expected to air in early 2017. The sixth Expanse novel, Babylon's Ashes, is released next month.

WarCraft

The orc homeworld of Draenor is dying, so the powerful mage Gul'dan opens a dark portal to the verdant world of Azeroth. Durotan, warchief of the Frost Wolf clan, realises that Gul'dan himself may have destroyed Draenor with his dark magic and vows not to let him do the same to this new world. To this end Durotan proposes an alliance with the native human kingdom of Stormwind. King Llane is doubtful, but his greatest warrior and general Anduin Lothar is more willing to consider the proposal. But prejudice and the machinations of a traitor threaten the peace before it can even be given a chance.



Blizzard Entertainment released their first WarCraft video game back in 1994. There have been twelve games released in total for the series (comprising three real-time strategy games, the online multiplay phenomenon World of WarCraft and various expansions), which is estimated to have sold well over 70 million copies, making it one of the biggest-selling video game series of all time. It's actually a bit surprising that it's taken this long for the franchise to move to Hollywood.

Sam Raimi worked on the project for a while before departing, unhappy that Blizzard would have a creative veto on the project. The next choice for director was a bit unusual: Duncan Jones, the director of the well-received Moon and Source Code. Both were good films, but both were also very small in scale compared to a massive, CG-infused fantasy epic.


Jones turned out to be very good choice, as WarCraft is, unexpectedly, a perfectly fine piece of pulp entertainment and easily the best movie based on a video game to date (not, it has to be said, a high bar to climb).

WarCraft works because it goes back to the start of the story and adapts the events of the first game in the series, Orcs and Humans. This is a canny move because it avoids the epic exposition required to jump straight into the World of WarCraft storyline and because Orcs and Humans actually had a very slight narrative, covering big events in a very broad brush. This gives the movie enormous room to invent new storylines and characters whilst still telling the same tale.

This also means that the movie unfolds on a surprisingly small scale. Yes, there are some massive tracking shots of thousands of orcs, but there is only one big battle at the end of the movie and it's a fairly restrained fight between a few thousand men and orcs rather than a Pelennor Fields-style colossal mass-engagement. Instead the film focuses mainly on the parallel stories of Anduin Lothar and Durotan as they try to bring about peace between their races in the face of scepticism on both sides. Travis Fimmel brings his off-beat charisma from Vikings to play the role of Lothar with relish, whilst Toby Kebbell doesn't let the fact that his face is buried under CGI to deliver a substandard mocap performance as Durotan, whose nobility and honour shines through. Special mention must be given to Paula Patton as Garona Halforcen. She has some really terrible makeup which stands out like a sore thumb compared to the CG orcs all around her, but she delivers a fine performance that overcomes such problems. Most of the actors, in fact, deliver above and beyond the call of duty with the possible exception of Ben Schnetzer, whose performance as Khadgar never really rises above the ordinary.


There's plenty of well-handled action sequences and a surprisingly indifferent attitude towards magic. Most fantasy movies portray magic as some difficult and awe-inspiring force, but WarCraft treats it as another facet of the world, which some people can manipulate and those who can't are still used to it being around. It's a refreshing change from a lot of fantasy films and one that is well-handled.

The film is absolutely bathed in CGI, which risks being alienating, but instead it's quite well-handled with some excellent shots. Jones is clever enough to never overwhelm the screen with polygons, instead making sure that every action beat is clear and easy to follow. It's all a tremendous relief for those expecting a Michael Bay-style disaster of jarring images and impenetrable visuals.

It's certainly not a perfect movie, however. Occasionally the lack of exposition (again, something that is initially refreshing) leaves the viewer unclear on the significance of what is transpiring, and the identity of the traitor to Stormwind isn't exactly a massive surprise. More problematic is that the film is very clearly set up as the first in a series, and a number of storylines end less on cliffhangers and more in mid-flow. The movie has done well on the international stage, but whether it's enough to warrant a sequel is unclear, especially since a movie based on WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness would require a significantly higher budget to handle its more diverse forms of warfare (which include sea and air-based battles), larger cast of characters and more detailed storyline. The rapid pace, thanks to a brisk two-hour running time, also means that some scenes abruptly end rather than being explored in more depth.

WarCraft (***½), dubbed WarCraft: The Beginning in the UK for some overly optimistic reason, is a fine slice of B-movie fun that rises up to be more than the sum of its parts. It falls very much into that Pacific Rim category of being a movie self-aware of its own silliness (contrary to some reviews, there's a very fine seam of dry humour running through the picture) and not letting its action scenes and budget overwhelm the characters and story. Well worth a look. It is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).