Monday, 30 January 2017

Peter Capaldi to leave DOCTOR WHO

Peter Capaldi has announced that he will be stepping down from Doctor Who at the end of the upcoming tenth series, his third since joining the show.

Capaldi joined as the Twelfth (technically Thirteenth, but let's not get into that right now) Doctor in 2014, although he made a brief eyebrow-cameo in the 30th anniversary special the year before. Capaldi was a long-term fan of the show, having sent fan letters to the producers during the 1970s, and had previously appeared in the show as Caecilius in the episode The Fires of Pompeii and John Frobisher in Torchwood: Children of Earth. Before Doctor Who Capaldi had appeared in numerous TV shows, including The Thick of It and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, but Doctor Who has given him a broader worldwide profile.

Capaldi's final episode will be the 2017 Christmas special. The hunt will be on for a new actor to take over the role for the eleventh series due in 2018, which will also be the first under new showrunner Chris Chibnall. It is unclear at the moment if Pearl Mackie's new companion character, Bill, will be continuing.

The news means that Capaldi will have the shortest tenure of any Doctor since Christopher Eccleston left the role in 2005 after just thirteen episodes. However, this is some illusory, as it'll only be five episodes less than Matt Smith and seven less than David Tennant. Due to an irregular broadcasting schedule, both Tennant and Smith were the Doctor for a rather longer period of time though (between four and five years apiece).

It was rumoured a few months ago that the BBC were considering a total reboot of the show in 2018, wanting to pair Chibnall with both a new Doctor and a new companion so they could do a big relaunch to help reverse declining ratings and merchandise sales. However, Capaldi claims that he had been asked to stay on for 2018 but had chosen to stand down, citing the show's heavy shooting schedule which limited his ability to take on other roles.

Star Wars: Rebels - Season 2

The Lothal rebels have been inducted into the Rebel Alliance by their handler Fulcrum, now revealed to be former Jedi padawan Ahsoka Tano. Both Tano and Kanan take an interest in the training of young Force-wielder Ezra Bridger, who continues to have his doubts about his future path. Meanwhile, Darth Vader arrives on Lothal to take direct charge of the hunt for the rebels and former clone troopers come out of hiding to join the fight...but it's unclear on what side.

The first season of Star Wars: Rebels was a modest success, setting up the crew of the starship Ghost and sending them into battle against the Galactic Empire. Aimed at a marginally younger audience than the preceding animated show, The Clone Wars, Rebels' debut season featured plenty of knockabout adventures and some great space battles. At the end of the first season, however, the series took a slightly darker turn with a number of supporting characters massacred and the stakes being raised.

The second season continues in this vein. The opening episodes take no prisoners either, killing off another major supporting character and setting our characters up against Vader (who, in full Rogue One mode, makes mincemeat of them and their fleet). As the season continues, the rebels retreat from Lothal, undertaking other missions further afield (but with occasional visits home), but Ahsoka becomes increasingly intrigued by Vader and sets out to find who he really is...which, of course, we know is a really bad idea.

The second season of Rebels does several things. It's a darker, more ruthless season within certain bounds (this is still a kids show). It has incredible visual design and some really memorable moments, such as Kanan, disguised as a stormtrooper, going into battle with a lightsabre (confusing everyone) and a nerve-shreddingly tense game of cat-and-mouse between an Old Republic walker and three AT-ATs in a sandstorm. The show also gets more of a sense of continuity, with characters and storylines recurring from The Clone Wars, helping to address some of the loose ends left behind by that show's abrupt cancellation. Although welcome for Clone Wars fans, it is problematic for those who haven't seen that series: Darth Maul showing up is extremely random for those who hadn't seen his (somewhat implausible) resurrection on the older series. Some people may argue that Rebels, supposedly a stand-alone show, has been hijacked a bit by Clone Wars storylines in Season 2 to the detriment of its own characters.

However, I don't really buy that. All of the characters get their moment in the sun, such as an Enemy Mine-riffing episode with Zeb and Callus working together to escape an ice moon and a strong storyline for Sabine as she explores her Mandalorian heritage. There's also a frankly brilliant story featuring Chopper (the Ghost's psychotic-but-loyal astromech droid) as he winds up on an imperial starship, joins forces with the ship's officious manifest droid and kills a whole bunch of bad guys. In one of the best episodes of the season we also get some much-needed development for Hera as she test-drives the prototype B-wing (later seen - all too briefly - in Return of the Jedi).

But underlying the whole season is the sense of a ticking clock as Ashsoka closes in on Vader's true identity. There's a paradox hidden in Rebels' premise, namely that we know that Luke is the only Jedi to work with the Rebel Alliance in the films, so something has to happen to Ahsoka, Kanan and Ezra before the timeframe of the movies is reached, and that clock is ticking. Events in the second season culminate in a showdown between Ahsoka and Vader in a Sith temple, and a brutal and bruising lightsabre fight with an epic ending which leaves many storylines ripe for exploration in the third season.

The first season of Star Wars: Rebels was good. The second season (****½) ups that to excellent, with few weak moments and some much-improved visuals, writing and characterisation. It also lays pipe for Rogue One, with the starships the Ghost crew steal in one episode being used in that movie to bring down a Star Destroyer. Overall, an excellent slice of pulp SF fun. It is available now in the UK (DVDBlu-Ray) and USA (DVDBlu-Ray).

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Star Wars at 40: George Lucas

On 25 May 1977, the face of popular culture and the forward direction of film, particularly American cinema, changed in an instant. A B-movie science fiction film was released by 20th Century Fox, who were expecting a modest return. Instead the film rapidly became the highest-grossing movie of all time, spawning a franchise now worth over $40 billion dollars in box office and merchandising sales. Hollywood has arguably never recovered from its release, with film-makers and studios constantly searching for “the next Star Wars.”

George Lucas on the set of THX 1138 in 1970.

Understanding the Star Wars phenomenon requires understanding its creator, George Lucas. George Lucas grew up as a speed-freak and gadget fan who then became deeply fascinated by avant-garde cinema and esoteric editing techniques who ended up creating the greatest piece of mass-market entertainment in human history, sometimes to his dismay. Lucas’s attitude to his creation has shifted many times over his career, from pride to loathing to ambivalence to regret, leading eventually – thirty-five years later - to him selling his creation to Disney Studios.

George Lucas was born in Modesto, California on 14 May 1944.  The son of a stationery store owner growing up at the time of the Space Race and great strides being made in aircraft and automobile technology, Lucas became fascinated with racing cars. As a teenager he learned how to drive and was soon taking part in underground races, clocking up an impressive number of speeding tickets in the process (enough so that they later disqualified him from serving in the US Air Force). At the age of eighteen he was nearly killed in a collision whilst racing, causing him to lose interest in taking part in the sport. However, he developed an interest in filming races instead, using an 8mm camera.
Lucas became intrigued with film-making and soon developed a fascination with European arthouse cinema. He started studying film at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, where he met a number of other rising talents including John Milius, Steven Spielberg, Hal Barwood, Randal Kleiser and Walter Murch. Lucas’s interests tended to the more experimental and esoteric, such as non-narrative forms and motion rather than writing, dialogue or performance. Lucas also became fascinated by how it was possible to completely shift the meaning of narratives and themes through clever use of editing techniques. Lucas came to describe himself as a film-maker rather than a director, preferring to explore the experimental possibilities offered by editing, sound and visuals rather than telling a story by focusing on actors and performance.

Lucas graduated in 1967 as a bachelor of the fine arts in film. He was rebuffed from joining the US Air Force and was later turned down for the draft to fight in Vietnam, due to a diagnosis with diabetes. He re-enrolled at USC as a graduate student in film production, which gave him the opportunity to teach and also work on full-fledged film productions. Whilst assisting on Finian’s Rainbow in 1968 he met and befriended director Francis Ford Coppola. A year later, he and Coppola founded the studio American Zoetrope, with the goal of creating more interesting and experimental cinema outside of the limiting Hollywood system.

This led Lucas to create his first film. He’d already directed a short SF movie called Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB and in 1970 expanded this to a full-length dystopian feature film, THX 1138, released the following year. The film attracted mixed reviews and made only a modest profit. In the wake of the film’s release Lucas created his own production company, Lucasfilm, and started looking for a new project.

Coppola had foreseen that THX 1138 only had limited widespread appeal, so challenged Lucas to make a much warmer and human film which larger audiences would relate to. Lucas rose to the challenge, deciding to use his experiences growing up and racing cars to create a nostalgia piece. This was slightly risky, but fortunately Lucas channelled the same wellspring of goodwill for the period (the late 1950s/early 1960s) that the musical Grease had also tapped into and had led to its own successful film adaptation (helmed by Lucas’s friend Randal Kleiser). The script, American Graffiti, was developed by Lucas and co-written with Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, who were credited with adding a lot of the inter-character banter and humour.

It took Lucas some time to sell the American Graffiti script: during this time he also worked on an early version of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, although he eventually passed on the project so Coppola directed it himself. Whilst working on American Graffiti Lucas also began developing his first ideas for a science fiction film, at one point offering United Artists a two-picture deal consisting of American Graffiti and the SF film. They turned him down.

George Lucas filming on location for American Graffiti in 1972.

Universal Pictures signed up for American Graffiti once Coppola signed on as producer, as that allowed them to leverage Coppola’s fame from the success of The Godfather (1972). However, they insisted on a very low budget. With a budget not much higher than that of THX 1138, Lucas had to direct lots of cars and races, along with a relatively large cast.

Lucas cast a mixture of unknowns and established faces in his film. Particularly notable were former child actors Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard, who both had break-out roles in the film. Ron Howard was cast in a similar role in the nostalgic sitcom Happy Days shortly after American Graffiti’s release. Lucas also cast an actor named Harrison Ford, who had classic leading man looks but had not had a breakout role, instead increasingly focusing on a side-career in carpentry.
The production of American Graffiti was chaotic with the young cast not always behaving (several hotel rooms were damaged) and equipment not working, but Lucas, helped by producer Gary Kurtz, remarkably kept the project on time and on budget. Once shooting was over, Lucas cut the film but to his horror discovered it was over three hours long. Solving the problem – knocking it down to 112 minutes – required some fancy footwork in the editing suite and completely rebuilding the narrative structure without the ability to shoot new material.

Universal dithered over releasing the film, at one stage considering making it a TV movie instead, but Francis Ford Coppola, fresh from winning an Oscar for The Godfather, leveraged his influence to ensure the film was released properly. The movie attracted rave reviews and grossed over $55 million, making it a massive hit completely against the expectation of the studio.

With the movie a bona fide hit, Lucas would be able to make whatever he wanted next. And what he wanted to make next was his pulp science fiction movie.

MISTBORN movie gets a writer

DMG Entertainment has hired scriptwriter F. Scott Frazier to adapt Brandon Sanderson's novel The Final Empire as a film. This is the first novel in the first Mistborn trilogy (which so far extends to a completed trilogy and an almost-completed quartet, with two more trilogies planned) and part of DMG's ambitious plan to adapt most of Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere universe to the screen as a Marvel-style shared universe.

Frazier is a relative newcomer on the screenwriting scene. He has written or co-written the scripts for The Numbers Station, Collide, xXx: Return of Xander Cage and Empress.

The Final Empire is the second Sanderson film that DMG is developing. They are in a more advanced stage with a movie version of The Way of Kings, the first Stormlight Archive novel, with Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan already deep in the writing of a first draft for that film.

RIP John Hurt

Acclaimed British actor John Hurt has sadly passed away at the age of 77.

John Hurt had many, many impressive and famous roles, of genre interest and not, in a career spanning six decades. He first rose to note in the role of Richard Rich in A Man For All Seasons (1966), followed by playing Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (1975), the Emperor Caligula in the BBC adaptation of I, Claudius (1976) and John Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980), the film that brought himself and director David Lynch international fame.

Just before that he played the role of Kane in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), gaining the honour of being the first-ever victim of the alien monstrosity. Arguably, this is the single most memorable screen death scene in the history of cinema. In Mel Brooks's Spaceballs (1987) he reprised the role, with the killer line "Oh no! Not again!"

He also gained acclaim for his role as Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) and as a voice actor, playing Hazel in Watership Down (1978) and Aragorn, son of Arathorn, in Ralph Bakshi's animated version of The Lord of the Rings (1978). He also portrayed the voice of the Great Dragon in the BBC TV series Merlin from 2008 to 2012, and provided the opening narration for every episode. He also had a memorable turn in the Jim Henson series The Storyteller (1988) as the titular character.

A lengthy career on stage, television and in film followed, with him gaining a whole new fanbase when he played the role of Mr. Ollivander in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II (2011). Additional roles followed in Hellboy (2004), V For Vendetta (2006) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).

In 2013 John Hurt achieved an impressive distinction when he was cast in Doctor Who. He portrayed the "War Doctor", a hitherto unknown incarnation of the Doctor that existed between the Eighth and Ninth incarnations, revealed as part of the show's 50th anniversary celebrations. He has since reprised the role for three audio plays, with a fourth due for release next month. In doing so he became the twelfth actor to portray the role on television, and sadly now the fourth television actor to play the role to pass away.

John Hurt was one of Britain's very finest actors, noted for his varied, nuanced performances and his equal capability with drama, tragedy and comedy. He will be very much missed.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Patreon Post: Cities of Fantasy - Introduction

My first post for Patreon backers is up. This is the Introduction to the Cities of Fantasy project and is a brief piece looking at where the project may go.

This will be exclusive on Patreon for one month and will then be reposted here on 27 February.

Many thanks to everyone who's supported and backed me on Patreon so far. I'm touched and overwhelmed by the support.

Trailer for Season 2 of THE EXPANSE

Season 2 of The Expanse hits SyFy (in the US) and Netflix (almost everywhere else) next week. This trailer came out a little while ago but I didn't post it at the time so here it is.

Season 2 debuts on 1 February (that's Wednesday) in the US, with each episode being made available a day or so later in other Netflix territories.

Season 2 should resolve the remaining storylines from the first Expanse novel, Leviathan Wakes, and start drawing on the events of the second novel, Caliban's War.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

New SONG OF ICE AND FIRE short story to be released in October

It's been confirmed that George R.R. Martin will be releasing at least one new Song of Ice and Fire story in 2017, with it being confirmed that a short story will be released in Gardner Dozois's anthology Book of Swords, due out in October.

Maegor the Cruel, by Michael Komarck

Martin will be joining authors such as K.J. Parker, Matt Hughes, Ken Liu, Ellen Kushner, Scott Lynch, Robin Hobb, Daniel Abraham, Garth Nix, C.J. Cherryh, Elizabeth Bear and Cecilia Holland. It's certainly an impressive line-up.

Speculation is rife over Martin's story. By far the most likely prospect is The Sons of the Dragon. This is part of Martin's colossal (novel-sized) history of the Targaryen Dynasty, Fire and Blood, which was supposed to be his contribution to The World of Ice and Fire but grew out of control. This would be the third such extract from this material, following The Princess and the Queen (published in Dangerous Women) and The Rogue Prince (published in Rogues).

The Sons of the Dragon is the detailed story of the two sons of Aegon the Conqueror, Aenys and Maegor, half-brothers who were both fated to become kings. This narrative was completed several years ago and Martin has already read extracts from it at conventions, making it a shoo-in for the role. The story also revolves a lot around the Targaryen Valyrian steel sword, Blackfyre, which fits the title of the novella.

However, has also postulated that a new Dunk and Egg novella could be a possibility. This is surprising. George started writing the fourth Dunk and Egg novella, under the working title The She-Wolves, back in 2009 before The Mystery Knight was even published but put it on hold until The Winds of Winter was completed. Martin also seems to have decided to reconsider the project at some point, suggesting that another story called The Village Hero might come first, but again not until The Winds of Winter was completed.

Some may take this as a possibility that The Winds of Winter is nearing completion and Martin has finished one of these two stories as his time frees up, but that may be optimistic. Of course, Martin could have changed his mind (especially if he had a burst of inspiration for the story), but I think The Sons of the Dragon or another Fire and Blood extract is much more likely.

We should have more information soon.


Surprising no-one, Obsidian Entertainment have formally announced the development of Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, the sequel to their successful 2015 isometric RPG.

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire takes place on the Deadfire Archipelago, an island chain located far to the south of the Eastern Reach, the setting for the first game. The action kicks in when a long-missing god shows up, destroying your castle in the process, and then goes AWOL, leaving you to assemble a new party and follow a trail of clues leading to the Deadfire Archipelago.

Pillars of Eternity II has already been in development for a year, self-funded by Obsidian from profits from the first game. A crowdfunding campaign has been launched on Fig, a new service where crowdfunders can invest for a return of the proceeds.

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire seems to be targeting an early 2018 release window.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

BANNER SAGA 3 hits Kickstarter

Stoic Games have returned to Kickstarter to launch The Banner Saga 3, the concluding part of their Viking fantasy trilogy.

The Banner Saga was launched on Kickstarter in early 2012. It raised $723,000, substantially more than the initial funding target of $100,000. Extra money was put into the game, particularly for more sound, animation and music than originally planned, and, most responsibly, Stoic decided to fund the second game from this fund as well, so The Banner Saga 2 did not require a separate Kickstarter campaign and development was able to flow smoothly from one game to the next.

The Banner Saga was released in January 2014 to a strong critical reception. The Banner Saga 2 followed to an even stronger reception in April 2016. There is even a spin-off boardgame, The Banner Saga: Warbands.

The first two games in the trilogy were both excellent, the second particularly solving some of the problems in the first game. The trilogy so far has had an impressively reactive story, smart game design and memorable characters, along with excellent tactical combat and some fiendish survival decisions. I fully expect the third game to live up to this reputation. Based on Stoic's previous timescales, I expect The Banner Saga 3 to launch in 2018.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Who is the Last Jedi?

Lucasfilm have confirmed that the next Star Wars movie, to be released in December 2017, will be called The Last Jedi. It's an interesting but also slightly confusing title choice because there are more candidates for this role then you'd think.

Who is the Last Jedi?

This is a much more complicated question than it initially appears, mainly because the definition of "Jedi" itself seems to be a bit questionable. Who gets to determine who is a Jedi and who isn't?

One thing that is clear is that not every single Force-user is a Jedi or Sith. During the Clone Wars there were only 10,000 Jedi Knights and Masters, out of a galaxy with a population of quadrillions. Even with only a tiny decimal of a single percentage point being able to use the Force, that's still millions upon millions of potential Force-users at large in the galaxy at any one time. Therefore the suggestion from the original trilogy that Yoda, Luke and Obi-Wan were the only light side Force-users of any significance in the galaxy, and the Emperor and Vader were the only dark side Force users of any significance in the galaxy, was already highly doubtful. What was more likely meant was that Yoda, Luke and Obi-Wan were the last Jedi, or the last of that tradition, and Vader and the Emperor were the last Sith. The latter was given more credence in the prequel movies which confirmed that there are only ever two Sith around at one time.

When it comes to the Jedi, there was more of a formal hierarchy in place. The Jedi Council was in charge of promoting people from the rank of Padawan to Jedi Knight, and from Jedi Knight to Jedi Master (and a seat on the council). The Council members therefore had the power to name Jedi. Shortly after the Clone Wars began Obi-Wan Kenobi was promoted to the rank of Jedi Master: more specifically, after the events of Attack of the Clones but by the opening episodes of The Clone Wars animated series, during which time he is already on the Council. Yoda, of course, was already a Master. The entire order of Jedi Knights and Masters was wiped out by Order 66 during the events of Revenge of the Sith, bar only Obi-Wan and Yoda, so as of that time they constituted the entire Jedi Order and the Council.

In Return of the Jedi, after Obi-Wan's death, Yoda is the sole surviving Jedi Master and member of the Council. He officially names Luke Skywalker as a Jedi Knight (although Luke had already been calling himself that to impress Jabba earlier in the movie) mere moments before his death, and that seems as official as things need to be.

What happens after that is less clear, but it appears that Luke tried to train a new generation of Jedi apprentices and these were all murdered by Kylo Ren and his Knights of Ren. As far as we know right now, no other Jedi Knights or Masters were named during this time period by Luke. Based on supplementary material and interviews, it appears that Leia, although Force-sensitive, chose not to explore her Force abilities in favour of her political career and thus never entered the Jedi tradition.

This seems pretty straightforward then: as of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, Luke is the last Jedi. Whether or not he trains Rey and eventually names her a Jedi Knight will, presumably, be an important story point in both The Last Jedi and Episode IX.

(Also, yes, the Force Awakens title craw says outright that Luke is the last Jedi. But that would have been a much shorter article.)

Of course, there are some complications with this.

Ezra Bridger, Kanan Jarrus and Ahsoka Tano during the events of Star Wars: Rebels.

There is another. And another. And another.

Lucasfilm and Disney are very, very clear that the animated spin-off series Star Wars: Rebels is 100% canon even in their new continuity, as is its predecessor series, The Clone Wars. Up to a few months ago, people would have taken that with a pinch of salt, but the movie Rogue One has pretty much enshrined the show in the movie continuity. The starship Ghost shows up in the Rebel Fleet in that movie, the psychotic droid Chopper shows up in the Rebel Base, Hera Syndulla (now a general) is name-checked and the Hammerhead corvettes stolen in Rebels show up and play a key role in destroying two Star Destroyers during the Battle of Scarif.

The problem with this is that Star Wars: Rebels features no less than three Jedi - or light side Force users - in central, key roles and working alongside the nascent Rebel Alliance. As Rebels is aimed a younger viewers, the general assumption is that the show is not going to brutally murder its entire cast as the show draws to a close, which leaves the fate of those characters in doubt and how they relate to the title "Last Jedi".

The most established of the three characters is Ahsoka Tano. She was Anakin Skywalker's padawan apprentice during the Clone Wars and became a skilled and brave member of the Jedi Order. However, some months before the end of the war she was framed for a crime she did not commit. She proved her innocence, but was so disgusted with the Jedi Order not believing her innocence (apart from Anakin) that she quit the order and went into self-imposed exile far across the galaxy, completely missing the end of the war, Order 66 and the rise of the Empire. Crucially, Ahsoka was never made a Jedi Knight, so was not officially considered part of the order. Fifteen years later Ahsoka returns to prominence during the formation of the Rebel Alliance, having become a far more formidable Force-wielder. She injures Darth Vader in single combat (after learning he is really Anakin) and escapes certain death at his hands, but was last seen trapped in a Sith temple on a remote planet. Her fate remains to be explored in Rebels.

The next most-established character is Kanan Jarrus. A padawan during the Clone Wars, Kanan watched his mentor and Jedi Master killed in front of him during Order 66. He barely survived and fled into deep exile and cover. As an apprentice with only light experience, he was forced to improvise his own training. Many years later he joined the Rebel Alliance. During a mission to the planet Lothal he met a young man, Ezra Bridger, who was strong in the Force. Despite misgivings, Kanan started training him as a Jedi, taking him as an effective padawan (despite Kanan himself never being given the rank of Jedi Knight). Kanan's attempts to train Ezra were complicated when he was blinded in a lightsabre duel, leaving Ezra to take more training onto himself...rather dangerously, after Ezra came into possession of a Sith holocron containing forbidden knowledge. This storyline remains in play on Rebels.

Given the events of the original Star Wars trilogy and the newly-revealed title, it seems that what fans had been assuming about Rebels is confirmed: Kanan, Ahsoka and Ezra don't make it to the attention of Luke during the original trilogy and they never become Jedi Knights (or, if they do, they're dead by the time The Last Jedi rolls around). Whether they live, die or survive but are cut off from the Force remains to be seen. However, the show itself does give us a possible explanation. In Season 2 of Rebels it is revealed that the Emperor is not only hunting down former Jedi and apprentices, but also children who show Force abilities. In Season 2 Ezra and Kanan rescue two of these younglings and get them to safety. One way of evading the issue is that either or both of our heroes have to take these younglings into a remote part of the galaxy to help them train. If this is the case, they may have an excuse to sit out the sequel trilogy and may even show up afterwards to help Luke found the nascent new Jedi Order. Another possibility is that Ezra himself turns to the Dark Side and has to be taken down, but this would again be quite dark for a kid-oriented show.

Time will tell where the story goes, but this title of the new movie certainly does not bode too well for our Rebels heroes.

Prelude to History: Why STAR TREK needs to get back to the Final Frontier

This summer CBS will air the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. This will be the first Star Trek TV show to air in twelve years. As a result, you'd expect fans to be excited and energised by the prospect of new adventures on the final frontier.

This doesn't really to be the case, however. News about Discovery has been greeted with polite interest, a patter of discussion, but not the enthusiasm you'd expect from a return to the Star Trek universe.

On the surface, the powers behind Discovery have made a lot of really good decisions. They hired Bryan Fuller, one of the most respected and critically-acclaimed showrunners around, to develop the concept and serve as showrunner. He later dropped out due to scheduling issues with his previous project for Starz, American Gods, but several episodes will remain with his writing credit on them, he will remain as a producer and the door appears to be open for him to return in a more active role in later seasons. More impressive was the decision to hire Nicholas Meyer as a writer and producer. As the co-writer and director of the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he is credited with single-handedly saving the Star Trek franchise from oblivion in 1982. He went to direct Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and co-wrote Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, therefore having a hand in the three most critically-acclaimed Star Trek movies.

Casting has likewise been well-received. Sonequa Martin-Green is a good performer on The Walking Dead but has arguably been under-utilised on that show. Putting her in a different role, as Lt. Commander Rainsford, an officer on the USS Discovery and the focal point of the series, is an interesting move. Doug Jones is a talented performer with many interesting collaborations with Guillermo Del Toro under his belt. Michelle Yeoh, of course, has been a tremendously skilled and respected actress ever since her star-making turn in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And if you need to recast Sarek, then you could certainly do far worse than the versatile and intense James Frain in the role.

One of the most popular moves has been the decision to set the show in the original or "Prime" timeline. For those unfamiliar with the situation, the Star Trek universe was split into two distinct continuities by the events of the 2009 reboot move directed by J.J. Abrams. Star Trek: The Original Series, The Animated Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and the first ten movies take place in the original continuity, whilst the three most recent films - Star Trek, Into Darkness and Beyond - all take place in the rebooted "Abramsverse", or "Kelvin timeline". The prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise, which takes place before the split in the timeline, exists in both. Although Abrams's glossy, Apple-aesthetic-channelling movies have been moderately successful (although falling short of Paramount's expectations), they have had a much more divisive critical reception and long-term Star Trek fans seem to regard them ambivalently, appreciating them for driving a new generation of fans to the franchise but less keen on their much looser commitment to real science and their overwhelming reliance on explosions and violence to solve problems.

The expectation was that any new show would also take place in the Abramsverse, but this was cast into doubt by the fact that Star Trek is no longer owned by one entity, with Paramount controlling the film rights and CBS owning the TV rights. With the new Abramsverse movies post-dating that split, CBS has no automatic legal right to the films and would have to strike up a new deal with Paramount to make one, and that would cost serious money (especially since Paramount and CBS have not been on good terms for a while). Clearly CBS decided it was not worth it and opted to simply set the show in the existing Prime timeline. Although largely irrelevant to a casual audience, this move please long-term Star Trek fans who either hated the Abrams movies or enjoyed them as, at best, a Marvel Ultimates-style alternate-but-limited take on established material, but not something that should supplant the originals.

However, since then many of CBS's announcements have been regarded with a lukewarm reception. One of these is technical and, I suspect, will not last the course, whilst the second is creative and delves much more deeply into the problems Star Trek has had in drumming up excitement since at least 2001, if not before. Let's deal with the bigger problem first.

Another streaming service. Yay.

This is a uniquely American problem, since in the rest of the world CBS has very sensibly sold the rights to the new series to Netflix, which is already showing the entire Star Trek franchise worldwide. This is quite a coup for Netflix and leads to the - somewhat bizarre - situation where British and German Star Trek fans are getting ready to watch the show on their existing service with no further hoops to jump through. But in the USA, where the majority of Star Trek fandom resides, this is not the case. CBS has instead chosen Star Trek: Discovery to lead its new digital streaming service, CBS All Access. The first episode of Discovery will air on CBS itself and subsequent episodes will be exclusive to the new service, in the hope that viewers will be impressed and sign up immediately. To put it mildly, this has gone down like a lead balloon.

American TV fans and viewers will already be subscribing to either (or both) Netflix and Amazon Prime. Many will also be subscribing to Hulu and HBO Go. There's also Sling Orange, PlayStation Vue, Seeso and a number of other options, including traditional cable. Introducing a further streaming service on top of this, a late entry in an already saturated market at a point when American viewers may be feeling economically squeezed, feels like an unwise decision. There are many Star Trek fans saying flatly they will wait for the DVD/Blu-Rays, or even illegally download the show over paying an additional premium on top of the other, far larger and more varied services they are already signed up to. Even if we assume many will change their tune, especially if Discovery's first episode knocks it out of the park (Star Trek doesn't exactly have great pilot form, however), this is certainly something contributing to the lack of excitement over the show.

To boldly go...where we've been before. Many times.

Far more a serious a problem for Discovery is the fact that it's a prequel. Again.

Let's break this down. Star Trek: Enterprise (which aired from 2001 to 2005) was a prequel, set 100 years before the original series. The Ambramsverse movies return to the setting of the original five-year mission. Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) was set after the other series, but for all but the closing moments of its last episode it was set on the other side of the galaxy to the Federation and Earth. Aside from a few brief communications here and there in Voyager, the Star Trek setting and universe has not moved or evolved forward in any substantial way since the final episode of Deep Space Nine aired in 1999. For a franchise that's based on the premise of going out into space and exploring new frontiers, it's instead been spinning around in circles for almost twenty years.

Star Trek fans seem to be keen for a new show set a generation or two after the Next Generation/Deep Space Nine/Voyager period which features new technology, new ideas and new characters. Such a show could be as divorced from previous continuity or reliant on it as the producers wanted, but it would have absolute and complete freedom to do whatever it wanted. Discovery, like Enterprise before it, will be a show wearing a continuity straitjacket. Every story, worldbuilding and character decision they make has to be carefully scrutinised in case it conflicts with what has been established before.

This isn't to say that you can't have entertaining and interesting stories within those narrow confines, like Enterprise (occasionally) did, but it does make it a lot harder. It also introduces significant amounts of work for the writers to make sure they're not contradicting things established elsewhere.

A prequel or interquel could actually be quite interesting if it was set in a different part of the history. There was a strong rumour during early development that the new show would be set in the seventy-year gap between the start of the movie Star Trek: Generations and the start of Star Trek: The Next Generation. During this time period there were two starship Enterprises (the B and the C), the fate of the first of which is unknown, and there were plenty of interesting things going on in the background with the Klingons and Romulans but without a lot of detailed continuity to get bogged down in. This would have been more fertile and interesting ground to cover, with the bonus that the setting would have even allowed for cameos by surviving original series actors George Takei, Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols.

A second rumour was that the new series would be a Fargo-style show which changed timeframe and setting for each season, but where everything still happened in the same universe. So Season 1 might have been a prequel set on a starship, the second during the height of the Dominion War, the third on a Klingon starship and so on. With the broad canvas of the Star Trek universe to draw upon, this idea was also quite exciting and fans started speculating about what settings could be used.

The final announcement - that the show will instead be set ten years before The Original Series, in the same narrative space as The Original Series and the Abramsverse movies - couldn't help but be underwhelming in comparison. That's already a well-ploughed field. Also, if as seems possible, the new show expands on the Four Year War and the Axanar Incident, that may also annoy and alienate fans of the Star Trek: Axanar fan project, which was recently cancelled through legal action. Although CBS and Paramount were legally in the right to do this, since they own all the copyrights involved, if the new, official TV series ends up using the same story and idea, that may also result in claims of plagiarism or intellectual dishonesty.

To be clear, Star Trek: Discovery looks like it has a lot of impressive creative power behind and in front of the screen. A Star Trek series with shorter, more focused seasons that cut out the awful filler (although we hope that excellent stand-alone stories still make it in) and have more serialised storytelling sounds very interesting, especially one with such an enormous budget. I suspect it'll be quite a good show. But even if it's the best Star Trek show ever, there's going to be severe constraints over what it could do and where it could go in the future.

The hope for a lot of Star Trek fans is that Discovery will do well enough for more shows to be commissioned, and one will finally get back to what the franchise needs to be: exploring new worlds, new places and new civilisations.


Lucasfilm have confirmed that the next Star Wars movie will be called The Last Jedi.

Lucasfilm broke the news this morning. Director Rian Johnson has said that the film actually had that title on its very first script draft, delivered two years ago, and there hadn't been much discussion about it (whilst apparently both The Force Awakens and Rogue One had a bit more discussion to them).

The title sounds ominous, but it's been pointed out that "Jedi" is both singular and plural, so it can refer to Luke Skywalker or his presumed new apprentice Rey, or both.

The new film picks up at the precise moment The Force Awakens ends and will see Luke helping Rey gain control of the Force whilst Supreme Leader Snoke helps heal and (presumably) train his apprentice Kylo Ren, who was seriously wounded at the end of the previous movie. In the meantime, Leia continues to lead the Resistance in its battle against the First Order, presumably aided by Poe Dameron and his plucky X-wing pilots, as well as ex-stormtrooper Finn.

The film will feature the final appearance of Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa (unless material is held back for Episode IX), as she had completed filming for the movie before she passed away last month. Leia had been scheduled to play a larger role in Episode IX, but Lucasfilm and director Colin Trevorrow have already met to decide on how to proceed. It is understood that CGI of the type used to briefly resurrect Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One will not be employed.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi will be released on 15 December this year. Episode IX is pencilled in for release two years later, with a "young Han Solo" prequel movie slated for release inbetween.

Friday, 20 January 2017

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY delayed yet again

CBS has announced that they are no longer wedded to the May launch date for Star Trek: Discovery and the show will instead launch when it's ready.

The announcement comes just before the starting of filming, which is due to start on Monday in Toronto, and just after the news that James Frain will be joining the cast as Spock's father, Sarek. It came after a previous delay from January to May, brought about by behind-the-scenes changes (such as Bryan Fuller's departure as showrunner, although he remains attached as co-writer and producer) and a longer-than-expected casting period.

Part of the problem seems to be that CBS was treating this like a prestige cable project, with an enormous budget ($6 million per episode, or more than twice the American average), but also seemed to want it on a standard network turnaround time of just a few weeks from shooting to transmission. Clearly now they've realised that this is not going to be possible and are instead going to give the show time to breathe during production.

Star Trek: Discovery is set about ten years before the events of Star Trek: The Original Series and will depict the voyages of the USS Discovery as it becomes embroiled in an event important to the backstory of the original series (possibly the Four Year War against the Klingons). It will still launch in 2017, possibly the summer, on CBS before moving to CBS All-Access. It will air in Netflix in most overseas territories.

For those who want their space opera fix a bit sooner, the second season of The Expanse launches on SyFy (in the US) and Netflix (almost everywhere else) on 1 February.

WEREWOLF: THE APOCALYPSE game in development

A couple of years back Paradox Entertainment bought White Wolf, the company behind the World of Darkness, a horror setting for a family of roleplaying games, the best-known of which is Vampire: The Masquerade. It's now been announced that a new computer roleplaying game in the setting is in development, based on Vampire's sister game Werewolf: The Apocalypse.

The new game, curiously, is not being released by Paradox. It's instead being developed by Cyanide, the French studio behind Blood Bowl and the so-so 2012 Game of Thrones RPG, and being released by Focus Interactive. This makes me wonder if the development deal pre-dates White Wolf's acquisition, as there doesn't seem much logic to them doing this and not Paradox themselves.

Hopefully the new game will be good, although Cyanide's track record has been spotty. What gamers have been hoping for is a new Vampire game, especially given Paradox's alliance with Obsidian, where some of the developers of the well-received 2004 RPG Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines are now working. Time will tell whether that intriguing possibility comes to light.


Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 games are being announced and released faster than rounds from a Space Marine autocannon these days, and surprisingly most of them seem to be falling into the category of "okay", with a few, such as Total Warhammer, being very good indeed.

The latest title, released today, is Sanctus Reach. This game is significant because it does what Warhammer fans have wanted for decades: translating the tabletop wargame directly into a PC game. The result is a strategic, turn-based wargame pitting the Space Wolves (one of the numerous chapters of Space Marines) against the Orks for control of the Sanctus system. If successful, there will no doubt be several hundred expansions adding other races and factions. The game has so far reviewed well, with the main criticism being about the limited animations (which could be tightened up in patches). Importantly, the gameplay sounds pretty solid.

Upcoming games include Necromunda, an adaptation of the popular Warhammer 40,000 spin-off boardgame focusing on gang warfare on an human hive world, and the eagerly-awaited Dawn of War III, an epic real-time strategy game from Relic Entertainment. Recent games in the setting include Vermintide, Deathwing and Space Hulk (in two distinct editions).

Thursday, 19 January 2017

RIP Miguel Ferrer

Hollywood actor Miguel Ferrer has passed away at the age of 61.

Ferrer was a Hollywood mainstay in the 1980s. His credit of genre note was the helm officer of the USS Excelsior in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), but his first big role was in RoboCop (1987), where he played the executive in charge of the RoboCop project whose murder provides a major impetus for Murphy's actions later in the film. He would go on to appear in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993), The Stand mini-series (1994), Traffic (2000) and Iron Man 3 (2013). His TV roles included CHiPs (1983), TJ Hooker (1985), Miami Vice (1987-89) and Twin Peaks (1990-91), as well as a long-running role on Crossing Jordan (2001-07).

Ferrer had a lower profile in movies in recent years, having discovered a successful new career at the turn of the century as a voice-over artist in animation (mostly in the DC Animated Universe) and video games (such as Halo 2). However, he had kept busy with a recurring role on the TV show NCIS: Los Angeles. He had also already completed filming his return as FBI forensic pathologist Albert Rosenfield for the new series of Twin Peaks, which will start airing on 21 May 2017.

XCOM 2: LONG WAR 2 released

In a surprise move, the Long War 2 mod for XCOM 2 has been released on PC. During discussions earlier in the week no release date was given and it was assumed that it was still months away. But instead it's out now.

Long War 2 radically enhances the strategy game, adds a new soldier class (three if you count those incorporated from other mods) and gives the player many more options for fighting the alien menace, although the aliens also have more abilities to counter-attack. The early reception for the mod sounds highly positive.

The mod is available via Steam completely free of charge.

BBC and Amazon join forces on GOOD OMENS TV series

The classic fantasy novel Good Omens, co-written by Neil Gaiman and the late Sir Terry Pratchett, is being brought to television as a co-production between the BBC and Amazon Studios, under the supervision of Narrativia, the production company set up by Pratchett before his death.

Gaiman will write the series and serve as executive produce and showrunner. Caroline Skinner and Chris Sussman will produce for the BBC and Rob Wilkins and Rod Brown for Narrativa. The series will consist of six hour-long episodes and will debut on the BBC and Amazon Prime in 2018.

The novel, originally published in 1990, tells the story of the Apocalypse, with the forces of good and evil preparing for the final showdown with Earth caught in the middle. However, both angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley have gotten used to life on Earth and decide to join forces to halt the Apocalypse. This means tracking down the Antichrist, who has gone missing. Much confusion and hilarity results.

Obsidian begins pre-announcing PILLARS OF ETERNITY II

Teasing announcements or pre-announcing things before announcing them or just plain announcing the announcement all seem to be the new thing, slightly tiresomely. The latest company getting in on the act is Obsidian Entertainment, who have begun pre-announcing Pillars of Eternity II, the sequel to their highly successful, Kickstarted 2015 computer roleplaying game.

Obsidian confirmed that Pillars of Eternity II was in development shortly after the game and it's two-part expansion, The White March, were released. However, that didn't officially constitute an announcement. They've now teased the game with a quote from the character Eder and some secret symbols in the game's fictional language. Sigh.

Pillars of Eternity II will, I strongly suspect, be an isometric, old-skool RPG like its predecessor. It's unknown if this game will be crowdfunded or not at this time. Their last game, the excellent Tyranny, was funded by a publisher, Paradox, so it'll be interesting to see which way they go this time.

I got about 20 hours into Pillars of Eternity (about halfway through the game) before I got a bit bored of it. I need to get back and finish it off. Unfortunately, the game suffered from being described as a "spiritual successor" to Baldur's Gate but featured inferior combat and a less-interesting story, both a problem when it's very easy to just go and play the updated version of Baldur's Gate instead. Tyranny showed more originality and flair, so hopefully Pillars II will be closer to that level of quality than the first game.

Guillermo Del Toro teases new HELLBOY movie

Guillermo Del Toro has confirmed via Twitter that he is holding active talks with actor Ron Perlman and writer Mike Mignola on the possibility of a third Hellboy movie.

The news comes after Del Toro held a poll on Twitter asking for fans to tweet their support. With over 100,000 positive responses, he agreed to hold talks with Perlman and Mignola on the possibility.

The original Hellboy movie was released in 2004 and was a modest financial success, although it had a strong critical reception. Hellboy II: The Golden Army, released in 2008, was a much bigger box office success. Del Toro chose not to proceed with a sequel, instead directing Pacific Rim (2013), Crimson Peak (2015) and the forthcoming The Shape of Water (2017), as well as producing the TV series The Strain and the Pacific Rim sequel, Uprising, due in early 2018.

The decision to proceed with a further Hellboy movie may have been spurred by Perlman saying he'd be too old to play the role in a few more years, along with renewed fan interest and Mignola bringing the comic series out of retirement a few years ago.

Del Toro has said that a new Hellboy movie would require a budget of around $120 million and this may be difficult to finance, but clearly he thinks there is a good chance it may happen.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

James Frain cast as Sarek in STAR TREK: DISCOVERY

British actor James Frain has joined the cast of Star Trek: Discovery as Ambassador Sarek, Spock's father. The role of Sarek was previously played by Mark Lenard in The Original Series, The Animated SeriesThe Next Generation and four of the movies, whilst Ben Cross played the role in the 2009 movie Star Trek.

Frain has become a familiar face in genre television, having played Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors, Franklin Mott in True Blood, Azrael on Gotham and Eric Renard on Grimm. He currently plays the recurring role of assassin Ferdinand on Orphan Black, which returns for its final season in April. His past credits include Sleepy Hollow, The Tunnel, True Detective, InvasionThe Mentalist, Fringe and The White Queen.

The decision to cast Frain as Sarek is interesting for several reasons. Discovery, which is set about ten years before The Original Series, had previously been billed as more of a stand-alone story which would explore a conflict mentioned in the original series but not expanded upon, and the prospect for crossovers with The Original Series seemed unlikely. It's also interesting that the writers have chosen to recast the role rather than use Ben Cross again. Discovery is set in the original "Prime" timeline rather than the "Abramsverse" (or "Kelvin timeline") of the new movies, so it might be that this was a deliberate decision not to confuse the two franchises, opening the confusing possibility that we may get cameos by Kirk, Spock etc later on with yet more recast actors. Also, since Paramount own the movie rights to Star Trek and CBS the TV rights, there may be legal constraints on using the same actors in both projects.

After many delays, Star Trek: Discovery starts filming next week in Toronto. It will debut on CBS in May. Sonequa Martin-Grene stars as Lt. Commander "Number One" Rainsford, with Doug Jones as Lt. Saru and Anthony Rapp as Lt. Stamets, all crewmembers on the USS Discovery.

XCOM 2 to get revamped strategic layer

Firaxis have announced that their strategy game XCOM 2 is to get a revamped strategic layer courtesy of modders. The officially-sanctioned and authorised Long War 2 mod will allow players to take direct command of all the rebel cells on Earth, organising military strikes and recruiting new personnel directly.

This will make for a much more strategically involving game and makes contacting new rebel cells far more important than it was previously. It also means that everyone is involved in the fight against alien occupation rather than just your single group on board the Avenger. The mod will also introduce the Technical, a new soldier class who specialises in rocket launchers and flamethrowers, and Coilguns, a new weapons class that fits between the Mag Weapon and Beam Weapon layers. The mod will be released in the next few months on PC.

Based on the cliffhanger ending to XCOM 2, it is likely that we will see an XCOM 3 around 2019. Meanwhile, the original creator of the X-COM franchise, Julian Gollop, is developing a similar strategy game called Phoenix Point for release in 2018.

Friday, 13 January 2017

TWIN PEAKS relaunch gets an airdate

Twin Peaks is returning to TV screens on 21 May, after a gap of more than a quarter of a century. Showtime will air 18 new episodes picking up on the events in the mysterious town of Twin Peaks, Washington.

The new season has been completely written by David Lynch and Mark Frost, who created the original series, and has been completely directed by Lynch. This is Lynch's first dramatic, scripted project since the movie Inland Empire in 2006: his only projects since then have been the short documentary Idem Paris (2013) and the music video "Came Back Hunted" for Nine Inch Nails (2013). Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor in fact has a guest role in the new Twin Peaks, alongside Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam. Original composer Angelo Badalamenti, who composed the show's infamous haunting theme music, is also returning.

The original show ran for two seasons and 30 episodes from April 1990 to June 1991. It opened with the murder of Laura Palmer, a young girl in the town of Twin Peaks, and FBI Agent Dale Cooper is called in to help investigate the crime. However, what initially appears to be a mundane if horrific crime rapidly expands to incorporate bizarre spirits and an other-dimensional location known as the Black Lodge. Cooper helps solve the crime - and other related cases in the town - by interpreting his dreams and communing with the spirit of Laura Palmer.

The first season was a titanic critical and commercial success, with massive ratings and critical acclaim, as well as appreciation for its tightly-serialised storytelling (highly unusual in 1990, when most shows were episodic with no long-running storylines). The second season, mostly helmed by other writers as Lynch and Frost took a back seat, was considerably less well-received, especially after the resolution of the Laura Palmer murder mystery halfway through the season and relatively few answers being given to the show's many questions. However, the ending to the season was better-received, especially the revelation that the Palmer murder was setting in motion a much bigger and darker storyline. Sadly, this was not enough to save the series from cancellation.

The series was, arguably, the first harbinger of today's big watercooler shows, and its mix of critical and commercial acclaim gradually giving way to disappointment would later be replicated in both The X-Files (which inherited David Duchovny, one of Twin Peaks' recurring castmembers and who is returning for the new show) and Lost. David Lynch himself frequently expressed dissatisfaction with the ending of the series and resurrected the franchise in 1992 for a prequel movie, Fire Walk With Me, which fills in Laura Palmer's backstory and hints at Agent Cooper's fate after the show's cliffhanger ending, as well as having David Bowie show up for no discernible reason. The movie was slated and bombed at the box office, but has seen a positive critical reassessment in more recent years.

Many of the surviving castmembers from the original series return, most crucially Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper. The 25-year gap since the original series will be acknowledged and will play a key plot point (helped by the ghost of Laura Palmer saying "See you in 25 years" in the final episode), and the Fire Walk With Me prequel movie will be considered canonical. Presumably the series will explain what happened to Cooper after the cliffhanger ending to the show's final episode, which appeared to show Cooper possessed by the murderous entity "Bob".

Twin Peaks has been a huge influence on everything from the aforementioned X-Files and Lost to more recent fare like Stranger Things and the Alan Wake video games.

Showtime have described the show as "the pure heroin version of David Lynch", which is both intriguing and terrifying. Whether the new Twin Peaks can resurrect the same kind of power as the original show remains to be seen, but we'll find out in May when it airs in the US and on Sky in the UK.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Heart of What Was Lost by Tad Williams

The Storm King has been defeated, his army of Norns driven off and peace returned to the lands of Osten Ard. King Seoman and Queen Miriamele have taken the throne in the Hayholt and a new age of peace beckons. But for Duke Isgrimnur of Rimmersgard the war is not entirely over. Along with the famed warrior Sludig, Isgrimnur has been given command of an army with orders to pursue the fleeing Norns back to Stormspike and ensure they are destroyed forever.

The Heart of What Was Lost acts as a bridge between the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams and its upcoming sequel series, The Last King of Osten Ard. The first novel in that trilogy, The Witchwood Crown, will be released in June 2017. This book is useful for laying some groundwork for that trilogy and wrapping up some loose ends from the earlier series that Williams was unable to address at the time.

The Heart of What Was Lost is short, focused, lean and mean. Just 200 pages long in hardcover, making it barely a short story by the author's normal standards, it moves with pace and energy. As a war story it has quite a bit of action, but also with some strong moments of character-building as characters reflect on what is going on.

The book is related from three different points of view. Porto is an ordinary soldier in Isgrimnur's army who yearns for an end to the war so he can go home, but is distracted when he befriends a terrified younger fellow soldier and tries to keep him alive. Isgrimnur, a returning character from Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, is the gruff general and old warrior, still charismatic and skilled at warfare but hurting from the death of his son in To Green Angel Tower. Viyeki is a Builder, one of the main orders of Norn society, tasked with maintaining walls and fortifications, and the first Norn POV character in the series.

This POV rotation is effective, although Porto's contribution to the story is limited. I suspect Porto, or maybe his offspring, will play a role in the upcoming trilogy otherwise I can't see much reason for him being in this book. Still, he provides an interesting ground's eye view on the battles. Isgrimnur is the same world-weary warrior we met in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, but fleshed out as he grapples with the fall-out of his son's death. Williams is successful in making Isgrimnur's grief raw and convincing, given he last wrote for the character some twenty-three years earlier. The most successful character is Viyeki, who gives us a much-needed "bad guy" perspective on events. Although the first trilogy successfully established why the undead Ineluki wanted to destroy the world, it was less clear on why the Norns would support him. This book goes much deeper into their motivations, backstory and histories, fleshing out an under-explored area of the original trilogy's worldbuilding.

The story is short, mostly concerned with moral concerns as Isgrimnur ponders the wisdom of trying to make the Norns extinct and the Norns' battle for survival and hope to leave something for future generations to build upon. But it is powerfully and effectively told. Williams slips back into Osten Ard like he's never been away, and the novel feels weightier than it could have been, as the author slips extra moments of worldbuilding and foreshadowing for the future books into the narrative. There's also some nice misdirection. At one point the Norns outline a plan which feels almost like it could be the plot synopsis for the next trilogy, but this is then abruptly undercut when a major character dies and the plot takes an unexpected 90 degree turn onto a different path. Ultimately, this makes the book more self-contained than I was expecting. Certainly there is pipe-laying for The Last King of Osten Ard trilogy, but it's done very subtly.

The Heart of What Was Lost (****) is not just an effective scene-setter and palate-cleanser for the new trilogy, but a strong self-contained story in its own right, with more twists and turns than you might expect for its short length. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

HALF-LIFE 3 not in development at Valve

A new expose undertaken by Game Informer has concluded that Valve are not developing Half-Life 3, even on the backburner, at present. This contradicts Valve's position, taken since the release of Half-Life 2: Episode Two in 2007, that the next Half-Life game remains a work-in-progress.

To rewind, Valve released the original Half-Life back in 1998 to immense critical acclaim. A first-person shooter noted for strong combat and total immersion in the game's viewpoint character, Gordon Freeman, the game sold over 10 million copies and completely redefined the first-person shooter genre. Two expansions, Opposing Force and Blue Shift, followed in 1999 and 2001. Opposing Force launched the career of Gearbox, themselves now one of the biggest FPS developers in the industry for their Borderlands series.

Half-Life 2 was released in 2004 to even greater acclaim and sales. It was praised for its graphics and its pioneering use of physics technology. More importantly, the game launched the Steam digital distribution platform which is now the leading online retail store for PC games with over 125 million users.

Unhappy with the six-year wait between the two games, Valve decided to split the next Half-Life game into three distinct episodes. Half-Life 2: Episode One was released in 2006 and was followed by Episode Two in late 2007, which infamously ended on a massive cliffhanger involving the death of a major supporting character. Episode Three, it was speculated, would be released in 2009. Valve also improved their game catalogue by releasing Episode Two alongside two other games in the "Orange Box" collection: Team Fortress 2, a colourful and fun multiplayer shooter, and Portal, a sophisticated puzzle game using portals, physics and momentum to solve puzzles in a story with a very dark sense of humour and a break-out villain character, the evil computer GLADOS. Portal also took place in the Half-Life universe and fans had fun spotting the Easter eggs linking up the two storylines.

Portal 2 was released in 2011 and was a massive success. A far larger, funnier and more sophisticated game than its forebear, it gained immense acclaim. It also had much closer ties to the Half-Life franchise, including some elements that seemed to be helping set up Episode Three.

Since 2011 there has been almost blanket radio silence from Valve on the status of the Half-Life franchise, except for rumours that Episode Three was dead and the next game would be a full-blown Half-Life 3. Valve has since released Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012), Dota 2 (2013) and Portal VR spin-off The Lab (2016) but no more games, instead focusing on online content for Team Fortress 2 and experimenting with new hardware, particularly virtual reality.

Game Informer's investigation relies on an interview with an insider at Valve. According to them, the game never gained much traction due to Valve's way of working, where developers work on projects that they like and then take prototypes to senior management to approve and take to the next level. For whatever reason, Valve's senior management (and its overall boss, Gabe Newell) have never formally approved a Half-Life 3. Apparently some of the ideas and prototypes were pretty wild, including an real-time strategy game spin-off and a live-action movie with branching storylines based on player choice. It does look like that Episode Three did get off the ground after Episode Two's completion, but it was canned pretty quickly, possibly in favour of Portal 2, and the momentum was never regained.

Valve has occasionally released concept art for Half-Life 3, including this image of the Borealis, a ship which was heavily referenced in both Episode Two and Portal 2.

The idea that the Half-Life franchise may be dead was given greater credence when Viktor Antonov, the main designer of Half-Life 2 and its episodes, left Valve for Arkane, where he became lead designer on Dishonored and Dishonored 2. However, even more damaging was the departure of Marc Laidlaw last year. Laidlaw was the main writer on Half-Life and its sequel, as well as the episodes. His departure is a much bigger blow, since it was his influence that led to the franchise's signature laidback, subtle and environmental storytelling, as well as its nods to pulp SF.

Half-Life 3 is a difficult project to take on at this point. Gabe Newell seems to want a game that will redefine the FPS genre as the first two titles did with new ideas and technology, but no-one seems really to have come up with a viable idea. In addition, the Half-Life franchise may have sold over 25 million copies but its console ports have never been more than modestly successful, whilst a new game would also have to appeal to console gamers. The direction of FPS games on console has been to lowest-common denominator, cut scene-heavy and violence-focused titles. That's not to say that a smarter, more thoughtful FPS could not be successful (arguably the Fallout series has moved away from being RPGs to narrative and conversation-heavy FPS games instead), but the project has to be seen as being risky from a commercial POV.

On the other hand, there is no way that a new Half-Life game from Valve would bomb. It'd be a big success regardless of the mechanics it employed. The huge cliffhanger ending of Episode Two, not to mention the numerous storyline nods from Portal and Portal 2, have also set up expectations and questions that Valve should really answer, if not in a new game than perhaps in a novel or comic.

The one thing that might resurrect the franchise? A movie. Star Wars and Star Trek producer and director J.J. Abrams is a massive fan of the Half-Life and Portal games and recently confirmed that his company, Bad Robot, is developing movies set in both universes, although it sounds like the Portal movie will happen first. Whether Abrams would direct or just produce remains to be seen. But if something lights a fire under the franchise and gets a new Half-Life game going again, this might be it.

I Have No PC And I Must Scream

Well, not quite. Two days ago, after six years of leal service, my trusty and faithful desktop PC decided to say farewell to this mortal coil by suffering a Catastrophic Liquid Cooling Failure, which rapidly turned into an Overheating Processor Core Event and then a Total System Kaboom.

Fortunately, I long ago learned (from Steven Erikson's infamous "losing half of first of draft of Memories of Ice" incident, among others) to have an external hard drive hooked up and to back up everything I'm working on, so I didn't lose any vital documents or files. But it is certainly an inconvenience.

Thanks to the generosity of my friends, I have a borrowed laptop so normal blogging service will not be interrupted, but anything approaching modern gaming is out the window for a few months until I can get a new desktop. Hopefully this will also result in more time for reading.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Polygon on the making of FINAL FANTASY VII

Polygon has published an absolutely massive article about the making of Final Fantasy VII.

Released on 31 January 1997 by Squaresoft, Final Fantasy VII was a vast, sprawling 3D roleplaying game which has been credited with helping to drive the success of the original Sony PlayStation console. It also popularised the use of advanced CG cut scenes in video games and drove an explosion in the success of Japanese video games in the West. It was also the first Japanese RPG to also be a best-seller on PC, helping drive the current success of the genre on PC and mobile platforms.

Polygon's article is remarkably thorough in talking to those responsible for the game's creation, prototyping, publishing and marketing. It brings together several of the creative forces involved in the game for group discussions of its creation, as well as one-on-one interviews with other personnel. The game also touches on Squaresoft's decision to terminate its relationship with Nintendo to work with Sony (some cite Square's move as helping drive the nail in the coffin of the N64 console) and the difficulties faced in marketing Japanese titles in the US and European markets.

A fine piece of video games journalism and well worth a read.

Square is currently working on a high-tech remake of Final Fantasy VII for modern consoles (and probably PC). The game is not expected to be released until 2018 or 2019. Final Fantasy XV was recently released on PlayStation 4 and X-Box One, with a PC version rumoured for later this year or next.


George R.R. Martin has broken his year-long radio silence on The Winds of Winter to confirm that he hopes to release the book in 2017.

Martin cautions that he had hoped to release the book in 2016, prior to Season 6 of Game of Thrones debuting in April and clearly failed to hit that deadline, and makes no guarantees that the book will be out this year. However, it is his current aspiration.

The previous book in the series, A Dance with Dragons, was released in July 2011, itself five years and nine months after the previous volume, A Feast for Crows. The Winds of Winter will break this record if it is not released by April, which does not seem likely at this stage. Publication before Game of Thrones begins its seventh and penultimate season in late June 2017 also seems a little ambitious (but not completely impossible).

The turn-around from hand-in to publication for the novel will be around three months. To get the book out before 2017 ends, Martin will have to turn the manuscript in around August of this year.

Martin declined to provide a page count update for the novel. However, in January 2016 he confirmed that he had completed hundreds of manuscript pages and dozens of chapters. The Winds of Winter is expected to approach the size of A Dance with Dragons and A Storm of Swords, which both had over 70 chapters and 1,500 manuscript pages.