Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Tuesday, 23 January 2018

RIP Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the greatest writers of science fiction and fantasy of all time, has passed away at the age of 88. The cause of death has not been revealed, but it was known that Le Guin had been in poor health for several months.


Le Guin's contributions to the field of science fiction and fantasy were legion, but she will be best-remembered for her seminal and defining Earthsea series, one of the earliest "YA" fantasy success stories, and several key and defining works of science fiction, most notably The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974). She has won the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award multiple times. Her fans and appreciators include Salman Rushdie, David Mitchell, China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Zadie Smith and Margaret Atwood.

Le Guin was born in Berkeley, California in 1929. She was the daughter of well-known academics, anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Theodora Kracaw. She was raised in a happy family and inspired by her parents and their numerous academic friends, she started writing very early. Her first fantasy story was written at age 7 and by age 11 she'd started submitting short stories to magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction. Le Guin went on to achieve a BA in Renaissance French and Italian Literature and an MA in French and Italian Literature. She met and married Charles Le Guin in 1953, with whom she had three children, and she began publishing short fiction in the early 1960s.

“My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world and exiles me from it.”

In 1964 Le Guin published "The Word of Unbinding", the first story set on her signature fantasy world of Earthsea. In 1968 she followed it up with the first novel in the setting, A Wizard of Earthsea. The novel, unusually, attracted both tremendous critical acclaim and significant sales. She followed up the book with several sequels and other works set in the same world: The Tombs of Atuan (1971), The Farthest Shore (1972), Tehanu (1990), The Other Wind (2001) and Tales from Earthsea (2001).

A Wizard of Earthsea has been adapted for the screen twice. In 2005 SyFy produced Legend of Earthsea, which "whitewashed" the cast (in the original novel, the entire cast was dark-skinned) and lost all of the thematic subtlety and depth from the novel. The following year Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli released Tales of Earthsea, an animated film. Le Guin had enjoyed Miyazaki's My Neighbour Totoro and was keen to see him handle the movie, but was disappointed when he handed the project off to his son to direct, who in turn produced a more conventional action-adventure story with the resolution revolving around simply killing the villain (a choice Le Guin found boring).

“I do not care what comes after; I have seen the dragons on the wind of morning.”
Le Guin also had an ambitious cycle of future history stories, known as the Hainish or Ekumen novels. These novels were relatively individual in story and theme, but united by a shared (if not explicitly stated) history, partially defined by the creation of an interstellar communication device known as "the ansible" (a name cheerfully stolen by David Langford for his long-running SFF newsletter). The two-best-known works in this sequence are The Left Hand of Darkness, which explores the definition of humanity and identification on a world of shifting genders, and The Dispossessed, a lengthy and sustained interrogation of the left/right political paradigm.

Le Guin's other notable work includes The Lathe of Heaven (1970), about someone whose dreams intrude on and shape reality, and Lavinia (2009), her final novel, which explores the titular character from Virgil's The Aeneid.


“Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”

In later years Le Guin found herself enjoying her status as an elder stateswoman of the genre. She praised authors coming up through the ranks, particularly Neil Gaiman and China Mieville, and forged a friendship with Canadian literary author Margaret Atwood. Atwood went through a phase of hating being called a science fiction author, but through several public debates Le Guin explored with her the idea that maybe it wasn't such a bad label after all (Le Guin herself struggled with the label when trying to be taken seriously as a literary author in the 1970s, before concluding it didn't matter).

Ursula K. Le Guin's output was modest compared to many other authors, but her impact on science fiction, fantasy and literary fiction was seismic. A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are among the greatest works of speculative fiction ever written, her inspirational status in the field (especially to female writers, but to everyone who sought to layer greater themes and meaning into genre work) is unrivalled and her literary legacy formidable. She will be missed.

Radar Pictures hints at big WHEEL OF TIME announcement

Radar Pictures, the production company working with Sony Television on the Wheel of Time television project, is apparently set to make an announcement on the future of the project. This comes shortly after the project's showrunner and head writer, Rafe Judkins, tweeted that he was rereading the series (using his original, genuinely-battered paperbacks) in preparation for work getting underway.


Sony have been developing the project for over a year, but progress had slowed because Sony had failed to find a reliable network partner. Amazon were, according to rumour, close to signing a deal but backed off to pursue the Lord of the Rings TV prequel series instead. Other networks and streaming services have also been mopping up the rights to other fantasy series all over the shop, with Netflix developing The Witcher and Showtime nabbing the rights to a Name of the Wind prequel series, whilst Starz has Outlander and SyFy has The Magicians.

However, Apple TV are looking for a killer app, FX might be on the hunt for another prestige show and, most intriguingly, Disney have a new adult-oriented streaming service readying for launch in 2019 and money in the bank. There's also the possibility that Netflix or Amazon might decide to double-dip with a second fantasy show after all.

For themselves, Sony have also been bullish recently about developing a show by themselves for release on their PS Network or via Crackle. Radar's profile and financial firepower, which has been in the doldrums for years, have also been bolstered by the surprise success of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle at the box office (proving that once again in Hollywood, you're only as good or bad as your last release). Radar's boss, noted movie tycoon Ted Field, is apparently keen to move on with the Wheel of Time project and "big announcements" are on the way.

It'll be very interesting to see where Wheel of Time ends up, and how seriously the project is taken.

Thanks to Narg for the heads-up.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Denis Villeneuve confirms that DUNE project is moving forwards

Last year it was confirmed that Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve was developing a fresh film adaptation of Frank Herbert's seminal 1965 SF novel Dune. Villeneuve indicated he might take a break or even direct a smaller movie before tackling another SF monster, but a new interview this week confirms that Dune is moving forwards (but not formally greenlit yet).

Frequent Villeneuve collaborator Peter Konig's take on sandworms.

At the moment Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Forrest Gump) has written a script and that's what's being developed at present. Only Dune itself is being adapted, with the five canonical sequel novels off the table unless the first movie is a major success.

There are also discussions going about making one film or splitting the story across two movies. David Lynch's 1984 adaptation of the book struggled to contain the whole story in two hours, with vast amounts of material from the book cut and more material filmed but edited out.

Villeneuve admits to being fascinated by Alejandro Jodorowsky's unfilmed version of Dune, but will not be taking any inspiration from that version or any of the filmed versions of the movie. This will be a completely new take on the source material.

The new film version is being financed by Legendary Entertainment. I wouldn't expect it before late 2020 at the earliest.

STAR TREK TV and movie franchies may be re-merged

CBS and Viacom (the parent company of Paramount Pictures) have apparently held early talks on a merger, which is a surprising move given the two companies "de-merged" back in 2005. The biggest SFF impact will be on the Star Trek franchise, the crown jewel franchise of both companies which they have - awkwardly - been sharing for the last thirteen years.


When the two companies split back in 2005, Paramount retained the film rights to the franchise whilst CBS walked away with the TV rights. Paramount rebooted the franchise in 2009 with a movie series helmed by J.J. Abrams, consisting of three movies so far with Quentin Tarantino developing a fourth film right now. Meanwhile, CBS instead masterminded an ambitious HD remastering of the entirety of Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation and last year launched Star Trek: Discovery, a brand-new series airing on CBS All Access in the US and on Netflix worldwide.

The split in the franchise has created an awkward lack of cross-pollination between the two sides of the franchise: Star Trek: Discovery had to delay its shooting date due to a legal agreement not to clash with the release of Star Trek Beyond in the summer of 2016. In addition, Discovery was unable to use any material or actors from the Paramount movie series and vice versa.

The re-merger has been proposed in the wake of Disney's monstrous deal to buy 20th Century Fox, which gives them control of a titanic amount of content on top of their previous Marvel and Lucasfilm acquisitions. Disney's power will increase further next year with the launch of a new streaming service, which will be led by a new Marvel show and the first-ever Star Wars live-action TV series. Paramount and CBS want a slice of that kind of action, and see CBS All Access and a merger of their properties as a possible way forward. This may also allow further cross-pollination of Paramount's movie properties to television (although it's difficult to see how, say, a live-action Transformers TV show would work).

What impact a merger would have on either the in-development new movie or Star Trek: Discovery, which is in pre-production on its second season, is unclear.

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 4, Episodes 11-12





D11: Lines of Communication
Airdates: 28 April 1997 (US), 2 October 1997 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by John C. Flinn III
Cast: Number One (Marjorie Monaghan), Phillipe (Paolo Seganti), Forell (G.W. Stevens), ISN Reporter (Carolyn Barkin), Emissary (Jean-Luc Martin)

Date: Within a few days of the previous episode.

Plot:    Forell, a member of the Minbari religious caste, arrives on Babylon 5 with disturbing news for Delenn. The Norsai, a peaceful, agrarian race living on the borders of Minbari space, have come under attack from unknown aliens. The Pak’ma’ra are also believed to have suffered raids. Delenn decides to take a taskforce of White Star ships out to investigate.

On Mars a hotel is bombed by elements of the Resistance working without the permission of the high command. Number One disciplines her supporters and Franklin and Marcus meet with the other rebels, offering Babylon 5’s full support. In return the rebels are not to hit civilian targets and are to keep a low profile until a plan for removing Clark and liberating Mars and Proxima III is fully worked out. In return, they will ensure that Mars is given its independence from Earth once President Clark has been removed from office.

The White Star taskforce reaches Norsai space and encounters a group of alien warships. Forell pulls a gun on Delenn and forces the White Stars to follow the alien vessels to their mothership. An alien shuttle docks with the White Star and a strange, humanoid creature who seems to shimmer in and out of existence comes on board. It identifies itself as a Drakh, although it refuses to disclose whether that’s its name or the name of its species (Delenn correctly identifies it as the species). Forell tells Delenn that events on Minbar are spiralling out of control. The warrior caste has evicted the entire population of a mixed-caste city and taken it over for themselves. The Minbari populace had to walk several hundred miles to the nearest city through freezing conditions and more than half of them died, including members of Forell’s family. The warriors are taking more and more power for themselves on Minbar and the religious caste is starting to oppose them. Forell fears that civil war may engulf the Minbari. He has contacted these aliens, the Drakh, and plans to ally them to the religious caste, even though Minbari do not use outsiders to settle inside affairs. Delenn agrees to further talks with the Drakh, but when the Drakh disclose that their homeworld was recently destroyed Lennier becomes disturbed and manages to warn Delenn that the Drakh may be the Shadow servants they saw fleeing Z’ha’dum several months ago (D7). Unfortunately, Forell mentions Delenn’s name, a name the Drakh recognise. Once the Drakh ambassador has returned to his ship the other Drakh fighters target the White Stars with their weapons. Thanks to some impressive manoeuvres the White Stars manage to escape to hyperspace, but Forell is killed in the battle. After effecting minor repairs, the White Stars return to normal space and destroy the Drakh fleet.

Sheridan, increasingly tired of ISN propaganda directed against Babylon 5, begins renovating the War Room with a new idea in mind. He plans to set up a rival news service, “The Voice of the Resistance”, with Ivanova as its main anchor. Ivanova isn’t thrilled about the idea but agrees to take part after her success in updating allied ships on enemy fleet movements during the Shadow War (D4-D5). Delenn arrives back on the station and tells Sheridan that there are troubles on her homeworld. She will be leaving for a while and hopes this time apart will also give Sheridan the resolve to deal with the situation on Earth. They have one last dinner together before she departs for Minbar.

MORE AFTER THE JUMP

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

BABYLON 5: Season 4, Episodes 9-10




D9: Atonement
Airdates: 24 February 1997 (US), 18 September 1997 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Tony Dow
Cast: Dukhat (Reiner Schone), Callenn (Brian Carpenter), Morann (Robin Atkin Downes)

Date: This episode does not take place long after D8. There are extensive flashbacks to the early 2240s and mid-August 2245.

Plot:    Delenn receives a summons to Minbar by her clan and is compelled to obey. She and Sheridan spend the third of their nights together where the female watches and the male sleeps, before slipping away to the customs bay. Lennier intercepts her there and insists on accompanying her to the homeworld.

Marcus and Franklin are given new orders by Sheridan. Since Earth is playing dirty in its attempts to discredit the station (D7, D8), they have to do the same. He is sending Marcus and Franklin to make contact with the Mars Resistance and make whatever arrangements necessary to secure an alliance. Because of the blockade at certain jump gates, they’re going to have to go the long way around and won’t reach Mars for two weeks. They agree to the mission and set off.

Delenn arrives on Minbar for a meeting with the clan elders, represented by Callenn. They have grave doubts about her decision to take Sheridan as a mate, despite the fact that she is partly human. They want to know her reasons are pure and have arranged the Dreaming. The Dreaming is a holographic imaging chamber whereby the candidate, having taken drugs beforehand enhancing their mental powers, projects his or her thoughts and memories into the air for all to see. During Delenn’s first visit to the Dreaming she sees herself as a young acolyte some twenty years ago. She is assigned to watch over Dukhat during his own Dreaming. Intrigued by her wisdom and intelligence in one so young, he takes her into the Grey Council itself and tells her that the Council is divided over whether or not to make contact with a race known as the humans, who apparently the Centauri have had dealings with for some time. The warriors fear the military threat of the humans, the religious caste dislike of the idea of being exposed to alien belief systems and the workers are opposed to cheap imports at the expense of Minbari labour. Delenn asks about simple curiosity and Dukhat agrees that just being curious is a good reason in itself to contact other worlds, but the Council refuses to consider the idea. Dukhat makes Delenn his aide in return for embarrassing her before the Council. Over the next few years Delenn grows under Dukhat’s tutelage and is eventually elevated to the rank of the Council. When she swears the oath before the Triluminary, it glows. Dukhat goes to talk to her afterwards, but is interrupted by an alarm signal. The Minbari vessels have encountered an alien fleet approaching their space. Delenn confirms they are human warships, having studied Centauri reports. Morann, a warrior caste representative, tells them their gunports are open in the warriors’ tradition of showing respect to an enemy. Dukhat angrily tells them to stand down but the Earth ships open fire, convinced the Minbari are about to fire themselves. During the exchange Dukhat is killed and the Council becomes deadlocked about whether it was an accident or an act of hostility. Delenn, filled with grief and rage, breaks the deadlock by ordering the destruction of humanity.

Lennier is shocked and realises that the other Minbari will believe that Delenn is marrying Sheridan out of guilt for giving the order that broke the Council’s deadlock and began three years of bitter warfare, although he is sure that is not the case. Callenn announces that the Dreaming is over and tells them they will rest for the night and inform them of what they have discovered in the morning. But, in the night, Delenn suddenly realises that Dukhat was trying to say something to her when he died. She re-enters the Dreaming with Lennier and Callenn and they hear Dukhat’s last words, which Delenn herself did not hear at the time: “You are a child of Valen.” Afterwards Lennier raids the archives and confirms Dukhat’s words. Delenn, as hundreds of thousands if not millions of other Minbari, is a descendant of Valen himself. Since Valen was partly human, that means Delenn was partly human even before her transformation. It also means that most of the Minbari species has some trace of human DNA in their genetics, the true meaning of the humans and Minbari sharing the two sides of one soul. If the “purity” of the Minbari race hasn’t existed for a thousand years, then how can that purity be tainted by any children Delenn might have with Sheridan? Callenn admits that this knowledge has been kept secret for fear of confusing and dividing the Minbari race. They decide on a cover story, that Delenn is offering herself to the humans to further the spiritual bond between their species and as a sacrifice to the humans for their losses during the Earth-Minbari War, in the same way pre-Valen Minbari would marry the son and daughter of the two sides in a war to reunite themselves. Delenn is satisfied and heads back to Babylon 5.

MORE AFTER THE JUMP

SHANNARA CHRONICLES cancelled

The Paramount Network has cancelled epic fantasy show The Shannara Chronicles after two seasons.


The TV series, based on the fantasy novels by Terry Brooks, debuted on MTV in 2016 before moving to Spike for its second season last year. Spike has been rebranded the Paramount Network, which is inheriting many of Spike's shows but not Shannara. The fantasy show featured extensive visual effects and location shooting in New Zealand, so was on the expensive side. With the second season (which, by looks alone, had already had a significant budget cut) bringing in only 500,000 viewers even after time-shifted and online viewings were factored in, it's unsurprising that Paramount was unwilling to move forwards with a third season.

The producers, Sonar Entertainment, may choose to shop the show to other channels, but the indifferent audience reaction, poor ratings and relatively high price tag make this unlikely.

The first season of The Shannara Chronicles was mediocre, but had flashes of good fun and had some good performances from the likes of Manu Bennett and Ivana Baquero. The second season (I've seen about half of it so far) was unfortunately notably inferior, looking considerably cheaper with much less story focus and spending too much time on the show's wooden lead.

Shannara follows Legend of the Seeker and Camelot into premature retirement and serves as a reminder to networks that if you want to build on Game of Thrones' success, you really need strong source material and writers who know what they're doing, not just deep wallets.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Gratuitous Lists: Ten Classic DOCTOR WHO Serials

This is a reprint of an article from 2011, a Gratuitous List before I came up with the name.

So you've watched and enjoyed the new Doctor Who and want to dive into the morass of the original series. But you're hesitant because it's an old series (the first episode aired just over 54 years ago!) and there's 700 episodes to catch up on, not to mention that many of the early stories are incomplete. Here's a handy list of ten classic Doctor Who stories which I thoroughly recommend to anyone intrigued by the original series.

Also note that this list is in chronological order, not any order of merit.


An Unearthly Child (episode 1 only)
23 November 1963, Season 1
Written by Anthony Coburn & C.E. Webber

Doctor Who's first episode was broadcast on Saturday, 23 November 1963, and was almost completely ignored due to events that had transpired just a day earlier in Dallas, Texas. The episode was subsequently repeated a week later, where it got more attention. This episode revolves around two schoolteachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, who become concerned over the behaviour of one of their students, Susan Foreman. They decide to talk to Susan's guardian, her grandfather, only to discover that the address she gave the school is for a junkyard, the only notable feature of which is a police telephone box...

This first episode of Doctor Who is talky and tense, with the Doctor (played with a stern, authoritative air by William Hartnell) shown to be an ambiguous figure as he tries to work out what he's going to do about these two teachers who have stumbled upon the secret of the TARDIS. The rest of the four-part story is dull as dishwater (the Doctor and his companions become involved in a dispute between two opposing tribes of cavemen and inadvertently end up giving them the secret of fire), but this first episode is a chillingly effective opener to the series.


The Dalek Invasion of Earth
21 November-26 December 1964, Season 2
Written by Terry Nation

Doctor Who's opening story may have not been a great success, but its second turned it into must-see TV. The Daleks introduced the Doctor's most enduring foes and triggered the phenomenon of 'Dalekmania', which swept across the UK for much of 1964-66. This second Dalek serial saw the BBC respond to the success of the series by giving it a ramped-up budget, allowing generous amounts of location shooting in London. The premise is extremely simple: the Doctor and his companions arrive on Earth in the mid-22nd Century to find it under Dalek occupation. The team are split up among several different groups of prisoners, quislings and rebels and undertake separate adventures until their paths cross again for the epic showdown. By the standards of the time, this is a big story, well-paced (unlike most of the contemporary six-episode or longer serials, which are glacial by modern standards) with a large cast and some great set-pieces. The story also introduces some enduring ideas, such as the notion of a black-cased Dalek Supreme and the pain the Doctor experiences when one of his companions departs (here even moreso, as it's his granddaughter Susan who elects to remain behind on post-occupation Earth), ideas that even the new series has continued to mine.


The War Games
19 April-21 June 1969, Season 6
Written by Malcolm Hulke

Making a pick for the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, is difficult as his surviving stories tend towards the cheesy (most notably the so-bad-it's-glorious The Dominators, in which two aliens try to conquer a planet with the help of impractical shoulder pads and some very dumb robot servants). Basically it came down between The War Games and Tomb of the Cybermen, and Tomb has to lose out due to the astonishingly bad acting of quite a few of the supporting cast (though the Cybermen waking from their tombs of ice is still a haunting image).

The War Games is a long, long story, weighing in at 10 episodes, but the four-hour length just about works due to a shift in focus every few episodes. The first few episodes see the Doctor, Jaime and Zoe arriving on Earth during WWI and get involved in various shenanigans on the Western Front. However, it is eventually revealed that they are really on a planet divided into historical timezones where unknowingly-kidnapped soldiers from different periods of Earth history fight it out whilst aliens study them. After exploring a couple of the zones, the story takes an unexpected turn when we discover that the aliens' time travel technology is the creation of the War Chief, an exile from the Doctor's home planet. As the Doctor and the War Chief face off, it becomes clear that the War Chief is a pawn for the leader of the aliens, the War Lord (a formidable performance by British character actor Philip Madoc, who brings 100% deadly earnestness to the role). Where the story succeeds is that it throws the Doctor for a loop every time he thinks he's solved the crisis, with the War Lord shown to be a remorseless foe who may be more than a match for the Doctor. Patrick Troughton, always a strong actor as the Doctor, is tested more than in any other story and rises to the occasion, showing the Second Doctor becoming increasingly frustrated and desperate as the crisis escalates. Eventually, the Doctor's resolve to defeat the War Lord cracks and he calls in his own people, the hitherto enigmatic (and unnamed) Time Lords, to sort it out for him!

This then leads us into the extremely different and hugely revelatory final episode, in which the Time Lords, having dealt with the threat of the War Lord, now bring the Doctor to trial for his crimes of interfering in the affairs of other planets. The Doctor puts on an impassioned defence of his desire to fight evil and injustice wherever it may be found, which doesn't seem to move the emotionless Time Lords...until they read out the verdict, in which it appears that the Doctor's arguments have indeed swayed them, and he is exiled to Earth in the 20th Century. A rather grim final episode with an ending that is rather mixed in its outcome: the Doctor survives, but he loses his companions and (temporarily) the use of the TARDIS, and sets up a very loose story arc that unfolds over the next three seasons. Fans remain divided to this day on the morality of the Time Lords killing the Second Doctor by forcing him to regenerate as well.


Day of the Daleks
1-22 January 1972, Season 9
Written by Louis Marks

Day of the Daleks is a clever story as it's one of the vanishingly few times the original series dealt with temporal paradoxes (Steven Moffat used the temporal paradox story idea more times in his first two seasons in charge than in the entirety of the original series, for example). The Doctor, now played as more of an action hero by Jon Pertwee, is highly confused to find that Earth in the 22nd Century is again under the rule of the Daleks (since he defeated them in The Dalek Invasion of Earth) and learns that time-travel has resulted in the creation of an alternate future. Ironically, it's not the Daleks' fault, but rather that of the well-meaning rebels who are trying to stop them. The story is a tense affair as the Doctor tries to repair the timeline in the future, but in the present UNIT are put on alert by the apparently-imminent outbreak of World War III. Aubrey Woods gives the main human villain, the Controller, a sense of depth as he is shown to be ravaged by guilt for his actions as a collaborator of the Daleks, whilst Doctor Who gains a new race of villains with the entertainingly dumb Ogrons (footsoldiers of the Daleks). Crucially, the Daleks are not overused and are kept in the background throughout, Machiavellian masterminds rather than easily-defeated soldiers.


The Sea Devils
26 February-1 April 1972, Season 9
Written by Malcolm Hulke

One of the best things about the Pertwee Era was the relationship between the Doctor and his arch-nemesis, the Master, played in this incarnation by Roger Delgado. The Doctor and the Master here are portrayed as the alien equivalent of Sherlock and Moriarty, well-matched opponents who both hate and respect one another. The Sea Devils opens with the Master in prison and the Doctor paying a visit to the apparently reformed villain, but unsurprisingly the Master is soon revealed to be up to his old tricks. This time, he's in cahoots with the Sea Devils, an off-shoot of the Silurians (the original inhabitants of Earth who are in stasis far below the planet's surface, awaiting the chance to return; they most recently appeared with Matt Smith last year), who are planning to conquer the Earth etc. A lot of the story is rather forgettable, to be honest, but it's the game of cat and mouse between the Doctor and the Master which is most fascinating, especially when it escalates to a literal fencing match between the two (here enhanced with lightsabre effects because...why not?).




The Ark in Space
25 January-15 February 1975, Season 12
Written by Robert Holmes

In 1974 Tom Baker took over the role of the Doctor, bringing an element of demented insanity to the role that, in later seasons, took over the show to its detriment. Early on, however, Baker delivered a series of iconic performances where his humour, intelligence and dramatic skills were kept in balance. The Ark in Space is a perfect example of this, as the Doctor's comic early exasperation with new companion Harry Sullivan gives way to probably his finest speech about why he likes hanging around human beings so much (a speech so iconic even the new series has referenced it) upon viewing the thousands of humans in cryostasis on an immense space station:
"Homo sapiens, what an inventive, invincible species. It's only a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds! They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts. Now here they are out among the stars waiting to begin a new life, ready to outsit eternity. They're indomitable."
Later on, things go a bit Alien as parasitical lifeforms attach themselves to the sleeping humans and turn them into ferocious monsters. Ignoring the fact that the alien grubs are clearly covered in green-painted bubble-warp, this was probably the scariest and most horrifying episode of Doctor Who to this time, marking the beginning of a period when Who was frequently criticised for being too disturbing for children to watch. But overall this is a well-written, dramatic and slightly disturbing story.



Genesis of the Daleks
8 March-12 April 1975, Season 12
Written by Terry Nation

After another period in which the Daleks had been heavily over-used, the production team decided to rest them for a while. But before they bowed out, Dalek creator Terry Nation decided to write a story exploring the creation and origin of the Daleks. He introduced their creator, the crippled, insane scientist Davros, and had the Doctor face an ethical dilemma as he is ordered by the Time Lords to destroy the Daleks at the moment of their creation (this move was later retconned as the opening salvo in the Time War). The Doctor thus spends the serial agonising over the morality of genocide even as the humanoid Kaleds and Thals slaughter one another with shocking abandon. Nation uses Nazi imagery to further make it clear that Davros and the Kaleds are Not Nice People, though the violent Thals hardly come out of it any better. This is Doctor Who at its most morally murky, but also at its most dramatic and watchable. A terrific story in which, again, the Daleks are purposefully kept off-camera as much as possible to make their appearances more memorable and powerful.



City of Death
29 September-20 October 1979, Season 17
Written by Douglas Adams*

City of Death may be the single most totally-bonkers story in the history of the series. Written by Douglas 'Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' Adams and filmed partially on location in Paris with a totally random cameo by John Cleese and Tom Baker's comedic skills being fully unleashed, City of Death is an unabashed joy from start to finish. Baker has some golden lines ("What a delightful butler, he's so violent!") and the plot is bananas (an exploding alien spaceship half a billion years ago splits its pilot into several incarnations scattered through Earth's history), but a key element here is Julian Glover (most recently seen as Pycelle in Game of Thrones) giving a steely, well-judged performance as the main villain. Boundlessly inventive and propelled by palpable cast enthusiasm, this is Doctor Who at its funniest and most entertaining.



The Caves of Androzani
8-16 March 1984, Season 21
Written by Robert Holmes

Peter Davison's sojourn as the Fifth Doctor comes to an end in a remarkably grim and 'different' Doctor Who story. Directed by Graeme Harper (the only director of the original series invited back for the new one) and written by the ever-reliable Robert Holmes (he also wrote The Ark in Space), this story pits the Doctor and Peri against the disfigured and violent Sharaz Jek (a blistering, intense performance by Christopher Gable). However, the situation is complicated by political machinations between Jek's allies and enemies, and frankly none of the characters come out of the situation very well. With its cast of fully-realised characters (each of whom has a fully-fleshed out motivation for what he's doing), this is Doctor Who at its best-written and darkest. It also features one of the best regenerations of them all, with Peter Davison's Doctor having to will himself through a difficult rebirth, egged on by visions of his past companions and threatened by images of his greatest enemy, the Master. The final scene, of the new Doctor Colin Baker rather threateningly saying that change has come, "Not a moment too soon," promises more than subsequent stories deliver, however.



Remembrance of the Daleks
5-25 October 1988, Season 25
Written by Ben Aaronovitch**

A tricky choice, since Remembrance does feature some of the weakest guest stars of Sylvester McCoy's admittedly difficult era, but Ben Aaronovitch's script is very strong and it's certainly one of the most ambitious Doctor Who stories. It brings us full circle back to the events of An Unearthly Child, being set just a few days after the Doctor, his granddaughter and two teachers vanished from Earth in late 1963, and we discover exactly why the Doctor was on Earth in the first place: to recover the Hand of Omega, an immensely powerful artifact capable of manipulating stars. No less than two factions of Daleks are also on the trail, and as they get closer to the device this results in some epic battles on the streets of London (the fact that the other three serials of Season 25 look like they had a combined budget of 25p is probably explained by this), most notably when the ludicrously over-powered Special Weapons Dalek is deployed which can take out streets full of enemy Daleks with a single shot.

But beyond the fireworks, it's McCoy's performance as the Doctor as a grand chess-master, orchestrating events from behind the scenes and manipulating others - even his companion Ace - into doing what he wants which really stands out. This is one of the few times in the original show's history that the Doctor himself sets in motion the events of the story rather than being reactive to it, and that simple change elevates the story to a new level, as does its raising of normally-ignored issues like racism in 1960s London. Stories like this one hint at the directions that the new Doctor Who would take on its return in 2005, dealing with threats lurking in suburbia as well as among the stars.

* Yes, that Douglas Adams, the author of the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gently books (and City of Death strongly inspired some elements in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency).

** Yes, that Ben Aaronovitch, the author of the Rivers of London fantasy series.

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Monday, 15 January 2018

Wertzone Classics: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Geralt of Rivia is a witcher, a monster-hunter who defends humanity from monstrous and supernatural threats. He has also has a habit of getting involved with the affairs of kings, mages and emperors. Reeling from the recovery of his missing memories, Geralt is caught up in grand events once more when the Nilfgaardian Empire invades the Northern Kingdom for the third time. He is commissioned by the Emperor to find his missing daughter, Ciri, who was also Geralt’s ward for some years. Geralt’s trail will lead through the war-torn no-man’s land of Velen, in Temaria, to the free city of Novigrad and the southern reaches of Redania beyond. His path will also take him to the Skellige Isles, the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen and the beautiful Nilfgaardian vassal state of Toussaint, before he can save Ciri and defeat his former allies turned enemies, the spectral Wild Hunt.


The Witcher 3 is a game that wears many hats. It is the third and concluding game in a trilogy that began with 2007’s The Witcher and continued with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (2011), wrapping up lingering storylines and character arcs from both former games. It is a character-focused, story-heavy game which aspires to the very best of BioWare but it’s set in a vast open world that owes more than a nod to the likes of Bethesda and Rockstar. It is also a direct sequel to Andrzej Sapkowski’s five-volume Witcher novel series: the prior two games were more side-stories to that saga, with Geralt’s missing memories allowing them to stand alone, but this one directly deals with fall-out from the books and reintroduces characters from them. And on top of all of that it aspires to be a game that completely stands alone on its own two feet, with familiarity with neither the prior games nor novels required to enjoy it.

Somehow, it not only achieves those ambitions but utterly trounces them, deploying the kind of confidence, verve and ambition that you’d be forgiven had completely disappeared from modern video game design. It is, quite comfortably, one of the greatest video games of the last decade and the finest computer role-playing game since the release of Planescape: Torment last century.


Given that the previous two games in the series were both somewhat mediocre (both having a great atmosphere and some good character work undercut by awful pacing, inconsistent writing, repetitive fetch-quests and truly terrible combat), it’s quite remarkable that CD Projekt Red was able to pull this off. But they have, and with considerable style.

The Witcher 3 is a roleplaying game where you play as Geralt. Unlike other RPGs you can’t create your own character, but you can certainly guide Geralt’s development, both mechanically – you can favour a combat-heavy approach or one more based around magic or alchemy – and also in terms of personality, by getting Geralt to be more heroic or ambivalent in his response to requests for help and in the (very) frequent morally complex decisions he has to make. At any one time Geralt will have a main storyline quest to follow, related initially to the hunt for Ciri and later for the need to confront the Wild Hunt, and a large number of other objectives. These take the form of side-quests, story-rich missions which are unrelated to the Ciri situation; witcher contracts, where Geralt has to track down a monster, identify its weaknesses and dispatch it; and treasure hunts, where Geralt has to find large stashes of gold or high-value equipment based on information and maps he has found in the world. There are also a massive host of other past-times, including fight-fighting matches and horse races, and location objectives, such as liberating a village from bandits or destroying monster nests. There is never a shortage of anything to do in the game.


So far, so Skyrim. But the key difference between The Witcher 3 and Bethesda’s mega-RPG is in terms of the importance of character and narrative. These elements are usually under-developed in Bethesda’s Fallout and Elder Scrolls games, which instead want to give you as much freedom as possible to do the things you want, which is (or so it’s always been explained) not compatible with a complex, rich narrative which gives you lots of choices on how things unfold. That was already a dubious excuse (as exemplified by what Obsidian did with Fallout: New Vegas, using Bethesda’s own engine to embarrass them with that game’s narrative richness and malleability) but The Witcher 3 sets it on fire. The Witcher 3 has the freedom of Bethesda’s finest but combines it with an incredible depth of story and character. The characters – both Sapkowski-originated or those new to the games – are all complex, multi-layered individuals. Even merchants and one-off village bumpkins who provide intel on a monster attack are usually given a memorable character tic which sets them apart from everyone else. They’re veritable fonts of information, sources of new quests but also most of them are just plain fun to talk to.

For example, the character of Dijkstra comes across initially as a boorish thug, but (even if you haven’t read the books) you’ll quickly discover him to be a quick-witted, deceptively shrewd operator who has some personal affection for Geralt which quickly vanishes the second he thinks you’re working against his interests. The Duchess of Toussaint is a pleasant and intelligent young woman who has worked with Geralt before and is flexible when it comes to matters of the heart or in dealing with isolated incidents, but the second she thinks her duchy is in danger she becomes a steely, determined ruler capable of remarkable ruthlessness. The Witcher 3 is never interested in serving up caricatures or one-note villains, there’s also a motive for what people do and there’s always multiple ways of dealing with them.


In this sense The Witcher 3 encourages players to role-play. For example, Geralt has multiple romantic options in the game but the two primary ones are Yennefer and Triss. For those who’ve read the books, they know that Yennefer is the love of Geralt’s life and it makes sense for them to end up together. For those that haven’t but have played the video games, they will be far more familiar with Triss and may prefer to see Geralt end up with the character they’ve come to know quite well over two previous games spanning 70-odd hours. However, there’s also the fact that Triss did take advantage of Geralt’s amnesia to seduce him and kept him unaware of his prior feelings for Yennefer. This is something that you can make into either a big problem – Triss manipulated Geralt for her own ends – or accept as an unfortunate consequence of an emotionally difficult situation.

This element of choice pervades every moment of the game. Every now and then the game will pause and explain how Geralt’s actions from hours earlier have led to a significant shift in the game’s storyline or status quo, with everything from the destiny of characters to the fate of entire nations hinging on Geralt’s decisions. The game doesn’t judge things, though. As long as Geralt and Ciri are still breathing, the game will continue and events will unfold as they will, even if Geralt makes mistakes and catastrophe results.


Mechanically, the game is a vast improvement over its predecessors. Combat is much-improved, being reactive, intelligent and reasonably fair (although those easily frustrated are directed towards the easier difficulty levels). Intelligent use of swordplay, magic, potions, oils and bombs will see most foes dispatched. It’s worthwhile reading the in-game bestiary to get more information on particular creatures’ weaknesses and also using your “Witcher Senses” to pick up environmental clues to the nature of the creature, as well as tracking enemies across distances. As you level up, you can improve your magical skills which has applications both in and out of combat (such as using your mental manipulation Sign to positively impact on conversations). Later on, you can also gain mutations which dramatically improve your character’s powers, as well as glyphs and wards to further improve your weapons. The game keeps Geralt in a constantly escalating spiral of getting better weapons and armour, although you can also pursue treasure hunt side-quests to get even stronger gear.

The story and character depth, which can see even minor quests evolve into lengthy, epic, multi-hour stories packed with incident, sharp dialogue and dark humour, is certainly the main appeal of the game, whilst the mechanical competence of the gameplay certainly keeps things ticking over. The freedom of the world and the quality of its presentation is another key factor. Unlike say Skyrim, The Witcher 3 isn’t one massive open world. Instead, it’s divided into four distinct, large maps (White Orchard, Velen/Novigrad, Skellige and Toussaint), each with its own character and atmosphere.


Combined, the world space of the game is about twice that of Skyrim, and far denser in terms of quests, points of interests and optional activities. Graphically, the game is stunning. There’s some amazing lighting effects with, easily, the best sunsets and sunrises ever seen in a game. The environments are remarkable, with Novigrad and Beauclair (the main city in Toussaint) fighting for the title of the finest, most convincing fantasy city ever seen in a video game. The dungeons vary from small caves to sprawling, multi-level complexes, whilst massive castles, underwater environments and even quest-specific sojourns to a fairyland and the surface of another planet are included. The Witcher 3 is a visually rich and inventive game which never loses the ability to surprise the player with the diversity of its locations. Even more pleasing, exploring the world is never once slowed by a loading screen (apart from a brief pop-up as you move between the four maps) as you seamlessly pass from exteriors into interiors to subterranean caverns without slowing down. Bethesda’s Creation Engine is left looking especially decrepit at this point by comparison.

The game also has a plethora of monsters to fight, ranging from poison-spewing plants to incorporeal spectres, enormous royal wyverns, sentient killer trees and various giant arachnids. The game’s bestiary ends up being huge, with it never seeming to run out of new creatures to throw into a fight. Character graphics can be a little bit more hit and miss, with major NPCs looking fantastic and minor ones being far less detailed.


Other weaknesses in the game are notable only for their slightness. Geralt isn’t the most nimble-footed character and finely adjusting his position on a ledge can be quite clunky, although this is very rarely an issue. The Skellige Isles map is also slightly underwhelming in its scale. The massive, snow-capped mountains feel like they’re 1:5000 scale models, with what appears to be a massive, towering peak in the distance turning out to be moderate hill about thirty feet away that you can run up in five seconds flat. The other maps are all brilliant, but the illusion that CDPR is trying to sell you in Skellige is too easy to see through. Another weakness is that the war story, the conflict between Nilfgaard and the Northern Kingdoms, feels somewhat underdeveloped and the resolutions are, for the most part, superficial and not entirely logical.

The other issue is one that really will vary by player: the game may be too much for some people. It took me 88 hours to complete the main storyline and that for both expansions (Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine, both included with the Game of the Year Edition), all of the Witcher Contracts and Treasure Hunts and most of the side-quests. But the maps are still plastered in “points of interest”, monster nests, occupied towns and unexplored caves. A thorough, exhaustive play-through could easily take two to three times as long. Conversely, those less concerned with not seeing everything the game can offer could get through it in maybe 50 hours if they focused on the main storyline and a few important, character-focused side-quests. These side-quests are particularly important as they allow you to assemble a crack team of badasses who will come to your aid in a major battle towards the end of the game. The more people you help out, the likelier you will survive and get the best possible outcome. This mechanic is not even spelled out in the game, unlike say Mass Effect 2’s comparable “loyalty missions” idea. It just develops naturally as events unfold. But there’s a huge amount of characters, moving parts and storylines to keep track of during this game.


But the game is so good that none of the criticisms feel relevant. It’s often very funny. The tone of the game can shift from bleak, grimdark nihilism (say during the ending of the harrowing, emotionally raw Bloody Baron storyline) to outright comedy (such as Geralt having to guide a randy ghost through one last party without letting anyone else know what’s going on) to genuine romance on the spin of a dime. It’s a game that knows when to engage in bleakness and when to let the wine and good times flow. There’s a strong sense of compassion, friendship and family to the game which few other video games have ever genuinely engaged with (probably the closest is the Mass Effect trilogy, but even that falls short of the genuine warmth that permeates The Witcher 3’s character relations). The somewhat pervy nature of Geralt’s relationship with women in the first game – which allowed you to collect cards of your sexual conquests – has been replaced by something more egalitarian in this game and more rooted in genuine romantic relationships (Geralt’s face when a woman treats him the way he treated women in the first game is particularly amusing). Attempts to try to play the field and bed every woman in the game can still be made, but this time around there’s consequences. This isn’t to say that the franchise has completely escaped its pervy roots – almost every female character has a plunging neckline, bare midriff or both, occasionally lampshaded in dialogue – but it’s certainly pushed back on it, even allowing you to control the (arguably) more powerful and capable character of Ciri in short but numerous sequences as you learn more about what she’s been up to.


Reviewing The Witcher 3 is a bit like trying to review a 30-book fantasy series in one go: there’s so much in this game that it’s frankly impossible. After 2,400 words I still haven’t mentioned the absolutely outstanding voice acting (apart from the actress who plays Ciri, who doesn’t quite nail it); the Crones, three of the creepiest villains ever seen in video games; the vast numbers of homages to other properties (everything from Game of Thrones to Skyrim to Police Squad!); the elaborate tourney sequence; Roach, your teleporting demon horse; your dilapidated house which you can rebuild slowly; and the full scope of the immense supporting cast, such as your genteel vampire who is overly fond of exposition to a minor demigod named “Johnny” to a dwarven bank manager to a persecuted shapeshifter called Dudu (which for some reason nobody brings up as being hilarious). There is so much here that the game will have you coming back for months, if not years, to try to track down that last missing quest or find that last monster lair.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (*****) is monstrously ambitious, epic on a scale none of its rivals (not even Dragon Age: Inquisition or Skyrim) can match and packed with genuinely well-written, witty and morally complex storylines. It is the foremost gaming achievement of this generation and it throws down a gauntlet to its rivals that I will be shocked if anyone can match it. It also raises the bar very, very high for CDPR’s own successor game in a totally different genre, Cyberpunk 2077. But after playing this game I am much more confident they can pull it off. The Witcher 3 is available (with its brilliant expansions) now for PC (Steam, GoG), X-Box One (UK, USA) and PlayStation 4 (UK, USA).