Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Lost Reviews: Part 6 - Season 2, Episodes 1-4

Welcome to the Lost rewatch project. I am currently rewatching all 121 episodes of the TV series which aired for six seasons from 2004 to 2010. This is very much a rewatch thread, with the show watched with knowledge of what is to come in later seasons. If you've never watched Lost before, you definitely do not want to read this blog series.

Without further ado, let us continue after the jump.

Desmond's reaction to yet another Jack flashback episode.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

New remastered version of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN due in June

Paramount Pictures have confirmed that they will be releasing a brand new, remastered version of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in June as part of the celebrations of Star Trek's 50th anniversary.

This a new, 4K scan of the original film negative. The movie will be presented in both its original theatrical version and the director's cut, which is generally considered definitive.

The Wrath of Khan is easily the best of the twelve Star Trek movies released to date (and certainly wipes the floor with its hideous semi-remake, Star Trek Into Darkness) and a remastered re-release is certainly way past time (although the previous blu-ray release was already quite decent). However, surprisingly, Paramount have confirmed that they are not planning any further remasterings for the other Star Trek movies, where the picture quality is highly variable. There are some suggestions that Paramount may consider further remasterings if Star Trek II sells well.

In terms of further HD remasterings for the remaining Star Trek series, CBS are releasing Star Trek: The Animated Series on blu-ray later this year. They are also, very late in the day, finally issuing a one-volume complete series box set of Star Trek: The Next Generation on blu-ray in June. Next Generation blu-ray sales in the States were considered to be disappointing, which led to plans for a HD remastering of Deep Space Nine to be put on hold. However, anecdotally at least, almost every American Star Trek fan I know has been saying they were holding out for the complete series box set because the individual sets were released at a very high price point. It may be that once the complete TNG set has been out for a while we may see improved sales and a move to remaster DS9 and, if that's successful, Voyager later on.

Considering that September marks the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, it appears that CBS and Paramount have been more than slightly lacking in celebrating the fact. The new Star Trek movie, Beyond, is released in July but has had bafflingly little pre-release hype or build-up. There's the new TV series, of course, but that won't launch until January. Whilst various TV specials and documentaries have been mentioned, there's not much too hard info on what is being done for the anniversary. Compared to the celebrations for Doctor Who's 50th anniversary in 2013, it all feels a bit lacking for one of the biggest science fiction franchises in history.

CBS confirms weekly release model for new STAR TREK series

CBS have given some more details on their new Star Trek series, in particular how they plan to release it.

The Federation's Excelsior-class was its most powerful and impressive starship design during the rumoured timeframe of the new series.

It was assumed in some quarters that CBS would release the entire season in one go, as with the Netflix model. However, CBS have now confirmed that after the first episode simultaneously airs on CBS and the CBS All Access digital streaming service, the rest of the season (currently believed to be 13 episodes in total length) will air once a week only on CBS All Access. CBS All Access costs American viewers $6 a month, but, controversially, still carries advertising. This distribution model will prevent people from subscribing, binge-watching the whole season in a weekend and then unsubscribing, at least not until the season has finished airing.

The exclusivity to CBS All Access, a rather niche and small service compared to the likes of Hulu, Amazon and Netflix, has irritated some fans who didn't want to pay yet more money and add yet another service to the increasingly long list of services demanding their time and money. It's just fortunate for CBS that there's no way for people who don't want to be hooked into yet another service to get hold of the episodes shortly after airing.

It's likely that the new series will air in a more traditional manner in other countries, but CBS have not yet announced any international partners for the series.

The new Star Trek series is currently in pre-production and should begin shooting in Toronto in the late summer for a January 2017 debut. Alex Kurtzman and Bryan Fuller are running the series, with veteran Star Trek movie writer and director Nicholas Meyer also producing and writing. No further details have been revealed, but apparently credible leaks have suggested that this will be a self-contained, serialised story that will be set somewhere in the seventy-year gap between Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: The Next Generation, in the original or prime Trek timeline, and will involve Klingons as antagonists. The new series will not be set on a ship named Enterprise. It sounds like CBS are considering an anthology model for this series (similar to Fargo), with future seasons able to jump around to different times and places in the Star Trek universe.

The Shannara Chronicles: Season 1

The Four Lands is threatened with a devastating invasion from demons. Millennia ago, the demons were imprisoned in the Forbidding, an alternative dimension warded shut by the Ellcrys, a giant magical tree. Now the Ellcrys is dying and the Forbidding is failing, allowing the demons to return. It falls to Wil Ohmsford (the half-elven descendant of the Shannara bloodline), Princess Amberle Elessedil and Eretria, a rover girl, to travel across the Four Lands and restore the Ellcrys and the Forbidding.

Terry Brooks's Shannara series holds an important place in the history of epic fantasy. The first novel in the sequence, The Sword of Shannara (1977), was the first big epic fantasy novel to hit the New York Times bestseller list since Tolkien, and along with Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series ushered in the modern era of fantasy novels. However, The Sword of Shannara has also become a byword for poor-quality fantasy that knocks off Tolkien rather than furthering the development of the genre. Given that the Shannara series (now encompassing twenty-eight novels) has sold almost fifty million copies worldwide, making it one of the biggest-selling fantasy series of all time (only A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time, Discworld, Narnia, Middle-earth and Harry Potter - if you count it as epic fantasy - have sold more), it's surprising that it's taken this long for someone to attempt an adaptation.

MTV, sensibly, have ignored the first book in the series (presumably for fear of legal action from New Line) and have instead picked up with the events of the second, The Elfstones of Shannara. These early books in the series were stand-alones, so it's not too much of a problem. It was also a good idea to start with Elfstones as it is possibly the best book Brooks has ever written. MTV also made the very wise choice to emphasise the fact that the Shannara books are set in a post-apocalyptic version of the United States's west coast. Unlike the books, where geography has completely shifted and only vaguely recognisable remnants of the prior age can be seen, the TV show is partially set in the still-recognisable ruins of Seattle and San Francisco and at times adopts a post-apocalyptic vibe far more reminiscent of The 100 rather than Game of Thrones.

These attempts to give The Shannara Chronicles its own character and atmosphere are both laudable and ultimately futile. No design work, exceptional CGI or occasionally inventive genre-bending can make up for serious deficiencies in the script and casting, and the show suffers from both. Dialogue is frequently awful and occasionally reduces the viewer to tears of laughter. Characterisation is deeply flawed, with characters goals and motivations being artificially obvious and change at the whim of the plot. A lot of time is spent on subplots that go nowhere, and there is significant wheel-spinning (a visit to a town called Utopia is total padding). There is also a lot more sex and violence (if mostly of a PG-13 kind) than I remember from the book (including a tiresome  lesbian titillation scene) and a few "shock" twists that serve no purpose.  The villains are charismaless, boring monsters who are more than slightly reminiscent of the orcs from Peter Jackson's Middle-earth movies.

Among the major actors, John Rhys-Davies brings his standard avuncular charm to the role of the elven king but it falls to the charismatic Manu Bennett to single-handedly raise the acting bar for the whole cast. Ivana Baquero builds on the early promise she showed as a child star in Pan's Labyrinth to deliver a good performance as Eretria, ploughing through terrible lines with admirable enthusiasm. Poppy Drayton overcomes early episode woodenness to deliver some better moments as Amberle, but both actresses feel a little wasted on the material. Austin Butler, on the other hand, delivers a flat, one-note performance as Will that never rises above the mediocre. Of the other actors the only one who really stands out is James Remar, a veteran American actor who can chew scenery with the best of them and makes the best of a bad script.

Visually, the show is stunning. Some of the scene-setting CGI is remarkable and the use of the New Zealand landscape is often very well-done. Certainly the show is worth catching in HD if you do plan to watch it. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the music, which draws on a range of MOR American pop with the occasional more interesting track thrown in (Ruele's title song is, fortunately, very good and props to the show for dropping in Woodkid's excellent "Run Boy Run"). But those looking for an original, sweeping, epic score will be let down badly.

The first season of The Shannara Chronicles (**) isn't a complete waste of time. It's visually impressive and cleverly overcomes both the limitations of the so-so soure material and the inevitable comparisons with other fantasy works by playing to its main strength, the post-apocalyptic setting. But in terms of writing, dialogue, acting (a few honourable exceptions aside) and soundtrack, it's a major disappointment. The season will be released on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA) on 7 June. It has, somehow, been renewed for a second season to air in 2017.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The 100 Best SFF Books by Women

Bookriot has published a list of the 100 best science fiction and fantasy novels written by women.

It's an interesting list (and it's good to see titles listed alphabetically instead of some arbitrary list of quality), although I would quibble with a new absences: Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History and Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain should definitely be on such a list, and the absence of anything by Kate Elliott is surprising. But there's definitely some very good books on there, well worth checking out.

WARHAMMER 40,000: DAWN OF WAR III announced

Sega and Relic have announced that they are working on Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III. This will be the third game in the series that began with the extremely popular and critically-acclaimed Dawn of War in 2004 and continued with the more divisive Dawn of War II in 2009.

Relic originally announced that Dawn of War III was in early development in 2011, just before their publisher, THQ, went bust. A period of confusion followed as Sega snapped up Relic and spent some time sorting out the various licensing issues. Games Workshop has branched out in the meantime, allowing numerous other studios to work on Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 games. Battlefleet Gothic, a space strategy game set in the WH40K universe, was released just a few weeks ago and Total War: Warhammer will be released at the end of this month.

Dawn of War III was originally mooted a multiplayer-focused title. It is unknown if this is still the plan or if the game will have a single-player campaign as well. In addition, it is unknown if the game will be a large-scale strategy game with base-building, like the original Dawn of War, or something more reminiscent of Diablo, as (highly controversially) was Dawn of War II. Relic's press hints that the game will hew closer to the original but it is unclear how much. From the trailer it looks like the game will focus on the Space Marines, Orks and Eldar as the initial factions, and the game will allow the deployment of Titans (massive armoured battle-mecha, hundreds of feet tall) in some fashion.

No release date has been announced, but the end of this year is likely the earliest release window.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Season 1

The Galactic Republic and the Confederacy of Independent Systems are at war. From one end of the galaxy to another, vast armies of clones (fighting for the Republic) and battle droids (fighting for the Confederacy) fight for control of key systems. The Jedi Knights play an important role in the war, moving from flashpoint to flashpoint as they try to bring about the enemy's defeat...unaware that they are being manipulated from behind the scenes by the Sith.

The Clone Wars is an animated, five-season TV series which fills in the three-year narrative gap between the Star Wars films Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. The Clone Wars have been a source for great speculation and discussion for fans since their fleeting mention in the original movies, and fans were disappointed that the movies only depicted the very beginnings and very end of the conflict. It falls to this CG show to fill in the bit in the middle. However, it's surprising how many Star Wars fans have avoided the series, possibly due to the prequel trilogy being a less-than-compelling series of films.

The Clone Wars actually works very well, and the first season by itself is far more entertaining than the entire prequel trilogy. One reason for this is that it taps into George Lucas's original vision for Star Wars, as an updated and more impressive version of the 1930s Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials starring Buster Crabbe. Like those old serials, The Clone Wars is a series of punchy, short episodes. Unlike those serials, The Clone Wars is not one big story. Instead, it mixes up stand-alone adventures with longer arcs and moves backwards and forwards in the chronology of the wars. This can be confusing. Several times I thought I'd missed an intervening episode, but the short run-time of the episodes (20 minutes or so each) requires them to move some scene-setting material into an opening flashback sequence, which is also used as a "Story So Far" device on multi-part stories. Just to add to the potential confusion, some stories in Season 1 are revisited in the third season and later.

You can mostly ignore this. In fact, the choppiness of the series does make it feel like a real war story, almost like a series of WWII news reports that flit from Stalingrad to the Pacific to North Africa in rapid succession. This feeling is helped by the show's willingness to change casts on the fly. Although Obi-Wan Kenobia, Anakin Skywalker and Ashoka Tano (Anakin's own padawan apprentice) appear in many of the episodes, the series is happy to switch to a story focusing on another hitherto under-represented Jedi character or on a bunch of ordinary clones trying to defend an outpost with no reinforcements. The series also moves through a strong variety of locations, from familiar places like Naboo and Kamino to completely new worlds to places mentioned before but not seen (like Ryloth and Rodia). In short, The Clone Wars has the entire Star Wars universe to play in and goes wild with it.

The result is a fun romp which, at its best, is pure pulp SF fun: dastardly robots, colourful villains and heroic Jedi clashing in often visually-stunning set pieces (and space battles far better-choreographed than the hideous messes in the prequel movies). But where The Clone Wars really wins points is how effectively it handles characterisation - especially Anakin's growing frustration and willingness to bend the rules, which is depicted with much greater subtlety than the films - and tonal changes. Some stories are surprisingly grim, like a detachment of clone troopers gradually being whittled down whilst defending an outpost to the last man, or the battle for the Twi'lek homeworld of Ryloth showing the shattered cities and destroyed lives of the civilians caught in the crossfire. The Clone Wars is a fun romp, but that doesn't mean it lacks depth or intelligence.

This first season is mostly a success, although early episodes feel a little hamstrung by limited art assets and budgetary issues. These mostly vanish by the end of the season, especially the gripping three-part story which depicts the liberation of Ryloth by first focusing on Anakin leading the space battle, Obi-Wan on the initial ground assault and then on Mace Windu leading the urban assault on the plentary capital. The quality of the stories is quite high, though a couple of Jar-Jar centric episodes are slightly tiresome. The episodes are also definitely aimed at children, but there are many nods to adult fans as well, and the series does not pull away from the harsher aspects of warfare (it's unusual for the good guys not to take casualties during their adventures, and the moral cost of the violence is always highlighted).

Season 1 of The Clone Wars (****) is available now as part of the Complete Season 1-5 box set (UK, USA). Note that the 2008 Clone Wars movie, which effectiely sets up the series (and the Season 1 finale is a sequel to it), is not part of this collection and needs to be purchased separately.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

The Lost Reviews: Part 5 - Season 1, Episodes 17-24

Welcome to the Lost rewatch project. Over the next few months I plan to watch all 121 episodes of the TV series which aired for six seasons from 2004 to 2010. This is very much a rewatch thread, with the show watched with knowledge of what is to come in later seasons. If you've never watched Lost before, you definitely do not want to read this blog series.

Without further ado, let us continue after the jump.
An excellent character-redefining moment.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

The Banner Saga 2

The world is falling into chaos. The gods are dead, the sun is frozen in the sky and a horde of dredge have erupted out of the northern wastes, destroying the lands of humans and varl before them. A great caravan has escaped out of the chaos, but its leaders have learned that the dredge themselves have been displaced by an even greater threat: a darkness that is spreading from beyond the north, consuming everything it touches. The last humans and varl converge of Arberrang, the greatest city in the land, to make a final stand and hope that the threat can be defeated.

Released in early 2014, The Banner Saga was a remarkable game. Using an art style reminiscent of mid-20th Century Disney animated films and excellent, turn-based combat married to Battlestar Galactica-style story of people on the run and having to deal with moral complexities along the way, it was an excellent, original game. It was, however, let down by repetitive, grindy combat and a questionable decision to combine experience points (for levelling characters) and money (for buying supplies and equipment) into the same mechanic, dramatically limiting your ability to progress through the game. It also had a punishingly hard ending, although this was fixed with some post-release patches.

The Banner Saga 2 picks up days after the end of the previous game. The grand caravan has destroyed the dredge Sundr, Bellower, but is still having to flee westwards. The game opens with your caravan escaping downriver by boat. You pick up some new characters along the way and their perspective, helped by a handy "Previously on The Banner Saga" intro, quickly gets everyone up to speed on the plot. The original game started in media res and you were some way into the game before things started making sense, but The Banner Saga 2 is a bit more welcoming in that it sets up the plot and actually resorts to helpful exposition on occasion.

Not long into the game a major event takes place (which is so epic that I refuse to spoil it) and the caravan has to divide into two forces. The new, second caravan is led by the varl mercenary Bolverk and his company, the Ravens, and consists of the more morally dubious and financially-motivated members of the caravan. It's fascinating to play as this group, because they are much more amoral and inclined to act pragmatically, whilst the other caravan (led by whoever survived the final battle in the first game) is more inclined to honourable behaviour. Alternating between the two groups is fascinating. Both have their own troubles to overcome, with the main caravan having to brave a magical forest and political infighting amongst the human clans, whilst the second has to travel through a terrifying underground landscape and confront the true scale of the darkness growing in the north. Both storylines unfold with pitiless inevitability. The story choices you have to make are often hard, and however you proceed there will be deaths and chaos.

Combat is much-improved from the first game. There are far more unit types on both sides than before, and the introduction of the centaur-like horseborn, several new human factions and new types of dredge (including a new Sundr) result in much more varied gameplay than before. There are also new battlefield obstacles that have to be negotiated and the ability to assign characters not in your main party to supporting roles. Combat was solid in the first game, but is absolutely superb in the second. You also get more renown for winning battles, which helps with the balancing the need to level up characters with keeping your followers fed.

As with the first game, it is graphically beautiful and the music is absolutely fantastic. But what this series has done so well is the atmosphere, the feeling of a land that is dying and slipping into oblivion and the last few survivors making a stand against the darkness no matter the cost. Few video games have managed to instill such a feeling of desperation into things (Mass Effect 3 and XCOM occasionally came close), and never so consistently. It's a gripping game that demands "just one more go".

The biggest problem with the game is length. These are low-budget but also low-cost games, so The Banner Saga coming in at around 9 hours in length felt just right. The Banner Saga 2 clocks in at just over 6 hours, which does feel a little too short. The pacing is tremendous and you certainly get your money's worth in terms of atmosphere and replayability, but the short length of the game did feel a little disappointing. But The Banner Saga 2 is the first game since Max Payne 2 (2003) to have such a short length but really sell it quite well. The story also ends on a cliffhanger, but considering this was a planned trilogy from the start, that's not a surprise.

The Banner Saga 2 (****½) is a short game but makes up for that with a gripping story, a fantastic world and tremendously entertaining, conflicted and haunted characters. This is a video game that can stand toe-to-toe with the best of fantasy literature for the world it has created. It is available on PC now and is coming to tablet and consoles later this year.

Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

The nations of Europa are struggling with threats from within and without. Vast ice sheets cover the north of the world and everyday survival can be a challenge. Technology is advancing, with the invention of airships and firearms, but the Mage Houses despise these developments and actively fight them. A would-be emperor, Camjiata, has been defeated but political turmoil has been left in his wake.

Cat Barahal, a young orphan growing up in the city of Adurnam with her aunt, uncle and cousin, is about to reach her majority when she discovers that a pact was made when she was younger. This pact means she must marry one of the feared Cold Mages. As she reluctantly goes along with this arrangement, she discovers secrets about her past, her family and her culture, and what this means for the future of Europa as a whole.

Kate Elliott has consistently been one of the most interesting fantasy authors working over the last twenty years. Her seven-volume Crown of Stars series, set in an alternate history version of Europe, was fascinating, well-characterised and offered fascinating commentary on religion and society. The Crossroads trilogy was much more complex and original, whilst also being tighter, and featured similar musings on both the individual and the larger scale of cultures and ideologies clashing across a continent, not to mention featuring one hell of a twist ending. Cold Magic is the opening volume of the Spiritwalker Trilogy and does some similar things but also brings some new ideas to the table.

The setting is vivid and fascinating, a steampunk/icepunk Europe where the sea levels never rose after the last Ice Age (because the Ice Age is still going on). Much of this book actually takes place in lands that were destroyed by floods tens of thousands of years ago, forming the English Channel. There is lots of detail on how people survive in a land where even the hottest summer days can still be chilly, most of it done organically. There's also a rich, unusual but convincing cultural backdrop, particularly the idea that the Mali Empire (one of the wealthiest in history before European colonisation) has been overrun by a plague, sending its incredibly wealthy upper classes to become refugees in Europa where they join forces with the Celts. But if Elliott is one of the best worldbuilders working in epic fantasy, she is also one of the best handlers of character. Cat, our central character, is a strong and confident woman but whose outer confidence and mastery of etiquette hides inner doubts, especially given her lack of knowledge about her parents and real family backstory. A major subplot of the novel is Cat piecing together her history from documents and accounts of the fate that befell her parents, rolling the story back even as it moves forward. Andevai, the Cold Mage that Cat is forced to marry, is painted in similar depths. Initially he appears unrelatable, remote, arrogant and selfish, but considerably more interesting nuances about him emerge as the story unfolds.

Cold Magic's greatest success is how it handles a striking tonal shift. The opening chapters are fairly grounded. Magic exists, but it is not prevalent and the world is dominated more by industry and the move to a steampunk(ish) existence. Then, about a third of the way into the book, Elliott hits the "Let's weird this stuff up" button and we have an explosion of otherworldly creatures, dalliances into the spirit world, animal spirits taking human form, dinosaur lawyers and prophetic dreams. Elliott foreshadows this quite nicely in the opening chapters so the shift is not jarring. There's also moments when the characters become aware of the existence of other worlds (possibly other timelines) and the world seems to teeter on the brink of fragility, recalling (if briefly) the malleable realities of Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History.

Cold Magic (****) is an imaginative, well-written and different kind of epic fantasy. There are some complaints possible about pacing (not a colossal amount happens in its 500 pages) but the slower pace actually allows the reader to take in the vividly-drawn setting and atmosphere more completely. Those looking for a pedal-to-the-metal action novel may want to look elsewhere, but for those who like imagination and immersion in their fantasy, Cold Magic is a very good read. The book is available now in the UK and USA.