Wednesday, 10 February 2016

J.K. Rowling announces new HARRY POTTER book! (kind of)

J.K. Rowling has announced that her forthcoming Harry Potter stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, will be published as a scriptbook. Co-written with Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, the book will be released in the summer shortly after the play debuts in London on 30 July.

The play - and the book - are being billed as the eighth part of the Harry Potter saga, picking up nineteen years after the events in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The story begins shortly after the epilogue to Deathly Hallows, where the now-adult Harry and his youngest son Albus Severus Potter are struggling with the legacy of Harry's previous adventures.

This year will also see the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of three films serving as a prequel to the Harry Potter saga. Starring Eddie Redmayne, the film is set in the United States in 1926 and explores what happens when Newt Scamander (Redmayne) inadvertently releases a group of magical creatures into New York City, straining relations between the wizarding community and the No-Maj (the American term for "Muggle") majority. The film is due for release on 18 November.


CG wizards Dark Pixel have merged Star Wars and Mario Kart to create something pretty damn awesome.

Hopefully Disney and Nintendo can find a way of making this game for real, because it would be amazing.

DARK TOWER movie looking to cast Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey

After years in development hell, Sony Pictures finally picked up the Dark Tower movie rights last year and firmly greenlit a movie based on the first book, The Gunslinger. They have put the project on an accelerated timescale, hoping to begin filming before the end of 2016 for a potential late 2017 release. Casting is also underway, with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey apparently the preferred choices for the roles of Roland of Deschain and the Man in Black.

The Dark Tower started life as a novel series by Stephen King, comprising The Gunslinger (1982), The Drawing of the Three (1987), The Waste Lands (1991) Wizard and Glass (1997), Wolves of the Calla (2003), Song of Susannah (2004) and The Dark Tower (2004). King followed this up with a stand alone side-novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012), and plans at least one more side-novel in the series (about the Battle of Jericho Hill). Events, themes and characters from The Dark Tower also resonate through many of King's other novels, most notably The Stand and Eyes of the Dragon. However, it's considered possible that all of King's novels and short stories take place in the Dark Tower multiverse.

Studious including HBO, Warner Brothers and Universal have previously optioned the books, with J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard both slated to direct at different times and Russell Crowe, Liam Neeson, Aaron Paul, Viggo Mortensen, Naomie Harris and Javier Bardem all considered for roles. Writers including Akiva Goldsman and Michael Verheiden have also been attached. The previous pitches centred around the idea of a trilogy of movies with two six-episode TV seasons airing between the movies, providing approximately eighteen hours to cover the seven main series novels.

The current project for Sony is apparently a single film to get things rolling, with any discussion of either sequels or spin-off TV series on hold until the film's performance can be assessed. Goldsman is still writing, along with by Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen. Danish film-maker Nikolaj Arcel is currently slated to direct. Sony have an aggressive release date of January 2017 in mind, although this is likely to change as production is not yet underway and normally a year is required for post-production alone.

DRAGON AGE co-creator working on new BALDUR'S GATE game

Ex-BioWare writer David Gaider has joined Beamdog, the development team made up of ex-BioWare and ex-Black Isle staffers working on the new Baldur's Gate game, Siege of Dragonspear.

Gaider joined BioWare in 1999 and wrote material for both Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn and its expansion, Throne of Bhaal. He worked on Neverwinter Nights and its two expansions (Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark, on which he was lead writer), as well as the critically-acclaimed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

However, Gaider's main claim to fame was working on the Dragon Age franchise. Preliminary development of the franchise began in 2002, when BioWare decided not to make any more Dungeons and Dragons-based games and needed a home-grown, replacement world to set fantasy CRPGs in. Gaider played a very key role in creating Thedas, the continent where the action of Dragon Age takes place, and developing the background lore, politics and key characters of the setting. He also wrote key characters including Morrigan, Alistair and Shale for Dragon Age: Origins and Meredith, Fenris and Cassandra for Dragon Age II. Gaider worked as a writer and designer on Dragon Age: Origins, its expansion Awakening and then on Dragon Age II. He moved up to the role of lead writer on Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Gaider has now come full circle, with Beamdog employing many ex-BioWare personnel including Trent Oster and Brent Knowles, the Dragon Age franchise co-creator who quit the company in 2009 in disquiet at the controversial, action-heavy direction mandated for Dragon Age II by Electronic Arts. Beamdog have recently reissued updated, enhanced editions of Baldur's Gate, Baldur's Gate II (and their respective expansions), Icewind Dale and Icewind Dale II. They are currently finalising work on Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear, an "interquel" set between BG1 and 2 and expected for release in Spring 2016. Gaider is joining too late to work on that game (which was recently described as feature-complete and now in QA and testing) but will likely play a key role in whatever project Beamdog develop next, including the much-rumoured Baldur's Gate III.

BioWare have been hemorrhaging a lot of talent recently. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, two of the company's co-founders, resigned in 2012. Jennifer Hepler, another writer, left in 2013. Casey Hudson, the director of the successful Mass Effect trilogy, departed in 2014. Although a lot of talent remains, BioWare have no announced projects underway beyond further expansions for Star Wars: The Old Republic and a new Mass Effect game, Andromeda, slated for release later this year or in early 2017. An all-new game, Shadow Realms, was cancelled last year. It is unclear what BioWare will be working on in the future, although rumours persist of a new, single-player focused Star Wars RPG and further Dragon Age games.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Bryan Fuller to produce new STAR TREK TV series

The new Star Trek series has found its showrunner: Bryan Fuller, the man behind Pushing Daisies, Hannibal and the best episodes of Heroes, will produce the new series for CBS.

After writing two episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 1997, Fuller transferred to Voyager and had writer and producer credits on eighty-one of the show's 172 episodes.

It marks a return to his roots for Fuller, who started his writing career with two scripts (The Darkness and the Light and Empok Nor) for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's fifth season in 1997 before joining the writing staff on Star Trek: Voyager. After Voyager ended in 2001 he created and wrote the short-lived but critically-acclaimed series Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls before joining the writing team on Heroes. He was credited for several of the best episodes of the series' first season (most notably Company Man). He left after the first season to produce the well-received Pushing Daisies, but returned for several episodes of the third. His most recent project was the critically acclaimed Hannibal.

Fuller will be mixing his duties on Star Trek with producing and showrunning American Gods for Starz. Fuller has several times mused on how to revive Star Trek, discussing both a Next Generation set in the Abramsverse (from the new movies) and a series set on the USS Reliant, the ill-fated Miranda-class starship from Star trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Fuller has been dismissive of the direction the franchise took in its later days on television, indicating that a return to the "Prime Universe" of the original TV series is less likely under his stewardship. However, as the "Abramsverse" is legally owned by Paramount, it is unclear if CBS would be able to use it at all for their new project.

The new Star Trek project is expected to air a pilot episode on CBS in early 2017, with subsequent episodes to bizarrely air exclusively on CBS's digital platform.

Friday, 5 February 2016

The Expanse: Season 1

Two centuries from now, humanity has spread across the Solar system. Mars is independent, its population working together to terraform the planet and building a high-technology society whose capabilities are beginning to outstrip those of Earth. A tense cold war between the two is building with the miners and ice haulers of the asteroid belt caught in the middle.

When a rich heiress goes missing and an ice hauler is destroyed near Saturn, tensions between Earth and Mars threaten to spill over into war. It falls to the survivors of the ice hauler and a determined cop on Ceres to expose the truth: that all of the factions are being manipulated by forces unknown for a much more mysterious, and deadly, reason.

Space operas have been a bit thin on the ground since Battlestar Galactica and Stargate: Universe both ended half a decade ago. Since then TV SF has largely restrained itself to near-future techno-thrillers like Fringe and Person of Interest. However, SyFy is now leading the fight back. It has launched two new space opera shows, Dark Matter and Killjoys, but these are relatively low-budget affairs. The Expanse is different. It's a big-budget, flagship, tentpole show designed firmly to recapture the BSG audience with its take on politics, war and human nature. It's also based on a popular series of novels by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (writing as James S.A. Corey), which should minimise concerns about the writers and producers not having "a plan" for future episodes and seasons (a key criticism of BSG).

This is a tense and at times claustrophobic show, with our protagonists spending most of their time in tunnels inside asteroid colonies or in spacecraft. The only time we get a feeling of air and freedom is when the series cuts away to events on Earth, where UN Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is investigating the events in space from the homeworld and using her canny political skills to work out how both Earth and Mars are being manipulated. This use of physical space cleverly ties into the sociological themes of the show, that the people in the belt are living in uncomfortable and unpleasant conditions for the betterment of people hundreds of millions of miles away who don't care about them whilst living off the benefits of their work.

The main cast consists of several intersecting groups of characters. The largest, and the group we spend the most time, with are crewmembers from the Canterbury who survive the opening episode: Jim Holden (Steven Strait), Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) and Amos Burton (Wes Chatham). This core cast is a little different from the books: Holden is slightly younger, Alex is more of a family man and Amos is both younger and shorter than their book counterparts. However, in each case the changes work well. In particular, Amos in the books is big and beefy and loyal to a fault, but still has a coldly utilitarian attitude to violence which disturbs his shipmates. Despite his shorter stature, Chatham sells the same thousand-yard stare and air of barely-controlled danger simply through attitude and confidence, and inhabits the character completely convincingly (although he also has a moderately distracting resemblance to BSG's Aaron Douglas). Naomi walks pretty much straight off the page. Thomas Jane also does outstanding work as Joe Miller, the hardbitten noir cop who is so much of a cliche that even he and his bosses remark on it. But Jane's nuanced performance brings out Miller's humanity and his search for something good to live for in the world. The Walking Dead and The Wire's Chad Coleman also has a small but pivotal role as Fred Johnson, a different kind of role for the actor (an administrator and general) which he pulls off skillfully.

The casting is excellent throughout, even where they differ from the character descriptions in the books, and clearly the show has put a lot of thought into bringing out the belter patois as well as mentioning how those born in low gravity tend to be thinner and taller than those born on Earth. The show also makes concessions to the low-gravity environments of places like Ceres and Eros, by showing birds half-floating through the air, only having to flap their wings every now and then, or by having liquids move slowly through the air when being poured. However, the people themselves tend to move around pretty normally, as if they're in 1G. This is a decent compromise between showing the scientific reality of low-gravity environments without them having to spend 90% of the show pretending to walk through syrup. There is also no artificial gravity, so unless they're under thrust the ships also feature zero-gravity environments which are pulled off quite impressively.

The production values are stunning, with large, expansive and expensive-looking sets and some quite incredible CGI in places. The spacecraft are chunky and primitive compared to those in other space operas, with no FTL travel meaning that the action is restricted to the Solar system and it takes days or weeks to get anywhere even with their highly fuel-efficient Epstein drives. The Expanse has had a lot of money spent on it (it's apparently SyFy's most expensive-ever production) and most of it is firmly on screen. There is also a wonderful theme tune and fantastic opening credits, although these are only seen in full in the first and last episodes (the remainder just having a title card).

With great production values, amazing CGI, fantastic actors and some brilliantly-handled scenes, the show should be slam dunk. Unfortunately it's held back by several flaws. The first of these is pacing. The first season is based on Leviathan Wakes, the first novel of a planned nine in the novel series. However, it doesn't cover all of the novel and finishes about two-thirds of the way through the book. This has several issues. We can assume that they are not planning 13-18 seasons, so the structural implications of cutting off the plot are not necessarily an issue (especially as the next two books are quite focused around Holden and company, the TV series can use the Earthbound plot to open things up and use the remains of the much more plot-dense Leviathan Wakes to open the second season). However, what is an issue is the effect is has on pacing. The show moves fairly slowly for the first six or seven episodes, then the last three are fairly jam-packed with incident. Early reviews show that many viewers, in particular those unfamiliar with the novels, have found these early episodes a bit of a slog and turned off in droves; the show lost more than half of its audience over its run. Fortunately, SyFy have taken on board the very healthy online viewing figures and renewed the show for a second season regardless. But it's certainly a concern that the first episodes are a little too obsessed with worldbuilding and scene-setting over action. Another issue, although understandable from a budget standpoint, is that the show a little too obviously shares its asteroid sets between Ceres and Eros, which could also be confusing to some viewers.

What we get instead is a lot of fine characterisation, which space operas usually don't prioritise. But here we get quite a lot of building up of the characters, their motivations and what makes them tick. For those who enjoy character-building, the slower-paced opening episodes are excellent. For those who prefer to have the characterisation established through the plot and action, The Expanse's writing and structural choices may be initially challenging.

The first season of The Expanse (****) is the finest season of space opera to air since the second season of Battlestar Galactica, a full decade ago. It's well-written and finely-acted with excellent production values, effects and its own, unique atmosphere. The pacing is a little off and the first season doesn't so much climax as end (well short of the book's own much bigger and more climactic finale), but overall this is both an enjoyable season of SF and also a rare example of the TV show being better than the book. The season will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the United States on 5 April.

Note for would-be UK viewers: somewhat inexplicably, SyFy has failed to secure a UK distributor for The Expanse, either in terms of showing it or releasing it on DVD or Blu-Ray. This is baffling, given how other, considerably cheaper and less-accomplished American TV shows are routinely picked up in the UK. As a result, the only option for watching the show in the UK right now is to order the media release from the United States.

No, a GAME OF THRONES prequel movie isn't in development

A couple of clickbait sites (that I won't dignify with a link) have been posting claims that HBO is working on a Game of Thrones prequel movie based around Robert's Rebellion, the civil war that took place twenty years before the events of the TV series and saw Robert Baratheon take the Iron Throne.

This is, of course, untrue. George R.R. Martin has gone on record several times saying that HBO only has the rights to A Song of Ice and Fire itself. It does not have the rights to make any prequel series or films without Martin's involvement. Martin has also indicated he is not inclined to pursue any project related to the Rebellion, stating that by the end of the books all of the important beats of that war will be known and an actual account of it would just be joining in the dots. HBO themselves appear to have agreed, and Season 5 and (reportedly) Season 6 will be featuring flashbacks and reports of the events of that civil war that would also seem to make an actual account of it redundant.

This isn't to say that Martin would not be amenable to discussions about other ASoIaF stories being turned into films and TV shows, such as the Dunk and Egg prequel novellas (recently collected in A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms) or The Princess and the Queen or The Rogue Prince, just that HBO would have to acquire the rights from him first and that, whilse discussions have taken place, no firm plans are in place at the moment.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The most metal deaths in Middle-earth

J.R.R. Tolkien is seen these days as a bit old-fashioned, maybe even a bit twee. But mainly by people who haven't read him. Those who have, particularly The Silmarillion, know that the Tolks was happy to murder his way through his cast of characters with a wild abandon that even George R.R. Martin might think is a bit much.

Fingolfin battles Morgoth shortly after the Battle of Sudden Flame, in the First Age of Middle-earth.

Some of those deaths were tragic. Some were epic. Some were heroic. But the question everyone needs answered is: which were the most metal deaths. The Toast has you covered here.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Fargo: Season 2

1979. There is a war brewing between a drugs gang based in Kansas City and an operation run by the Gerhardt family in Fargo, North Dakota. The conflict unexpectedly spirals out of control after an innocent couple, Peggy Blumquist and her butcher husband Ed, accidentally kill one of the Gerhardt sons. The conflict escalates, with Minnesota State Trooper Lou Solverson left to investigate and find those responsible.

When FX announced they were making a TV series based on the 1996 movie Fargo by the Coen Brothers, a lot of people including the Coen Brothers thought they were insane. Instead, the first season of Fargo turned out to be, quite possibly, the greatest individual season of television since (at least) the fourth season of The Wire aired a decade ago. The bar was raised impossibly high for a second season.

Fortunately, writer/producer Noah Hawley had a trick up his sleeve. Fargo is, at least nominally, an anthology series where each season has its own cast and self-contained story. The seasons all take place in the same fictional universe (as each other and the film) so references and very occasional characters cross over, but overall each season stands alone as its own story. And throughout the first season, the character of Lou Solverson (Keith Carradine) makes oblique references to something horrendous that happened in Sioux Falls in 1979. Season 2 tells us that story.

That tale is nothing less than a war story, a clash for territory and control between the Kansas City Mob and the Gerhardt family based in Fargo, North Dakota. The situation escalates into all-out war when one of the sons of the Gerhardt family is inadvertently killed by Peggy and Ed Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons), a quiet, ordinary couple trying to live the American Dream in their own way. Ed is soon mistaken as a ruthless, murderous contract killer ("The Butcher") by both the Gerhardts and the Kansas City boys, with local law enforcement officers Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) and Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) having to try to protect the hapless couple.

That's not really the whole story. There's also Lou's home issues, with his wife Betsy (Cristin Milioti) suffering from cancer. There's the murderous gun-for-hire Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) who works for the Kansas City crew but finds his career prospects hampered by racial prejudice. And there's a very enigmatic Native American Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon) who works for the Gerhardt family as an enforcer...up to a point. And that's not even mentioning the misadventures of local drunk lawyer Karl Weathers (Nick Offerman) and the fact that Ronald Reagan (Bruce Campbell) is hitting the campaign trail in the state int he midst of the chaos.

The second season of Fargo is busier than the first and, it has to be said, is not quite as good. However, it's still probably the single finest season of television you'll see this year. The second season is a little more diffuse, less focused and less finely-characterised than the first season. We don't have quite as finely-tuned a clash of personalities as the three-way battle of wits between Lorne Malvo, Lester Nygaard and Molly Solverson in the first season. But it's damn close. The second season feels a bit more inclined to pursue random tangents for the sake of character or even just a laugh (whoever cast Bruce Campbell as Ronald Reagan needs to be given a raise, immediately) before pulling itself together in the last few episodes to deliver the promised carnage at Sioux Falls and it delivers that with aplomb.

Plaudits can be poured onto the series freely. Kirsten Dunst and Ted Danson are two very familiar faces from American film and television, but here give career-best performances. Dunst plays Peggy as a somewhat self-obsessed (if not blinkered) housewife in a marriage to someone who doesn't entirely suit her, but then is unexpectedly able to capitalise on the carnage to help her "self-actualise" (to borrow her self-help guru's terminology), although fortunately not in as quite an evil direction as Lester in the first season. It's a tricky character to nail but Dunst does so with impressive skill. Danson also does excellent work as the sheriff trying to keep a lid on the chaos that is threatening to blow up in his town. In fact, all of the actors put in incredibly strong turns with Patrick Wilson being totally convincing as the younger version of Keith Carradine's character from the first season and Nick Offerman delivering a dramatic, powerful performance that shows his much greater range than just playing comedy, as he has done recently (although his drunk lawyer character does provide a few laughs as well).

Complaints? Well, the pacing is a bit odd. The central story is surprisingly thin, and unlike the first season this one feels like it could have had a few episodes shaved off it...until you get to the final three or four episodes which come after that peak and realise the genius of the writers in how they've structured the season. So that complaint is pretty quickly dispensed with. As mentioned above the show is a bit more willing to explore tangential subplots this year, but most of those subplots are excellent in their own right, so that's not really an issue either. Something that has sharply divided viewers is the emergence of science fictional elements in the story, which twice (in the first and ninth episodes) play a decisive role in events. My guess is that isn't really an SF element at all and is a result of the writers planting story seeds for future seasons, but in the context of this year by itself feels very random, although it does play into the 1970s theme quite well.

But it's still a gripping, intelligent and beautifully-written season (****½) of television, with an even larger hint of the weird about it. The series will be released on 23 February on DVD in the United States and on 25 April (because it takes two months to cross the Atlantic in 2016, clearly) in the UK. The show will be released on Blu-Ray as well but these editions have not yet been listed.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Kickstarter for an Ursula K. Le Guin Documentary

Producer and film-maker Arwen Curry is in the middle of production on a documentary about revolutionary SFF writer Ursula K. Le Guin. The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin will tell the story of the author and her fiction, including its impact on later writers. Although production is advanced, she has decided to use Kickstarter to secure additional funding to bring the project to completion.

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the most important living authors of speculative fiction. She is best-known for the Earthsea YA fantasy series, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), and a sequence of important, well-written and fiercely intelligent science fiction novels including The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Lathe of Heaven (1971) and The Dispossessed (1974). Le Guin is famous for her progressive politics (A Wizard of Earthsea has an almost all-black cast of characters, sparking her fury when the TV mini-series adaptation cast everyone as white) and her exploration of the social impact of science fiction ideas, such as interstellar travel and communications, and how sexuality works in a society where gender is biologically fluid.

Le Guin's impact and influence is notable, on SFF authors as well as on more literary authors such as Michael Chabon and Margaret Atwood, whose previous reluctance to be counted as an SF author seems to have been partially eroded through conversations with Le Guin about the nature of genre. Le Guin is certainly one of the most important SF authors of all time, so a documentary about her life seems very fitting.

Just a couple of days into the campaign, it has already raised $15,000 of its $80,000 goal. You can find the campaign here.