Saturday, 16 January 2077

Support The Wertzone on Patreon


After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

New Steven Erikson interview at Black Gate

Black Gate have undertaken a video interview with Steven Erikson about his fantasy work and the recent decision to delay the final Kharkanas book for the time being.

It's a fascinating interview, even if Erikson's assertion that Voyager is preferable to Deep Space Nine is one I would disagree quite strongly with!

The Punisher: Season 1

Frank Castle, the infamous "Punisher", has hunted down and killed everyone involved in the murder of his wife and children. He thinks he can move on to another life, working construction in New York, but it's not long before the past comes back to haunt him...and he discovers that there may have been more behind his family's murder than he first thought. It's time for the Punisher to return.

Jon Bernthal's tortured, intense portrayal of the Punisher was the highlight of the second season of Daredevil, with a hugely positive viewer reception, so it's not surprising that Netflix and Marvel quickly moved to commission a dedicated series for the character. The Punisher, as a character, has always been a hard sell for a mass audience, as he is an ultra-violent vigilante willing to dispense lethal force to punish criminals rather than bring them in for trial and incarceration. After three mostly weak action movies featuring the character, Netflix seem to have found a way of depicting and humanising the character by seeing him through the eyes of other characters: Daredevil and his allies on that show and a new collection of characters on the new series.

The arrival of The Punisher comes at an awkward moment. In corporate terms, the previous two Netflix shows - Iron Fist and Luke Cage - both suffered serious problems writing, pacing and characterisation. The team-up show The Defenders, which united Iron Fist and Luke Cage with Daredevil and Jessica Jones, was fun but a bit lightweight, with a fairly underwhelming set of villains. More politically, the arrival of a series which could be said to glorify firearms and violence at a moment in the United States history when gun violence is, once again, squarely in the news could have been deemed insensitive.

On the first point, The Punisher can relax. It's the best-paced and best-characterised series in the Netflix roster since the first season of Jessica Jones, effortlessly outpacing Iron Fist, Luke Cage and The Defenders in quality (as well as the second season of Daredevil). The Punisher has a murky story to tell about black ops, illegal activities in the CIA, power politics in Homeland Security and the morality of using violence to answer such crimes, but it does so in a methodical, logical manner. It's not afraid to spend an entire episode setting up a character's backstory and dedicates one episode to a series of flashbacks to American military operations in Afghanistan. Another is based around Frank and another character, David Lieberman (aka "Micro"), trying to work out if they can trust one another, which is difficult as they are both paranoid loners. In fact, the relationship between the two characters is the centrepiece of the season and is extremely effective, light-years from the gimmicky, "the Punisher gets his radio guy" story it could have been. A superb touch is that Micro's family is still alive (although they think he's dead) and Frank sees a way through them of redeeming himself by saving them so Micro can - eventually - do what Frank cannot and go home.

The Punisher's other characters are equally excellent. Amber Rose Revah is outstanding as Homeland Security Agent Dinah Midani whose prominent side-story could have gone in one of two equally cheesy directions (an unwitting thorn in the Punisher's side or an outright ally) and instead steers a more interesting and nuanced path between the two options. The Expanse's Shohreh Aghdashloo is also very good in a small supporting role as Dinah's mother, and the casting is outstanding as they look like they could easily be mother and daughter. Deborah Ann Woll returns as Karen Page from Daredevil and The Defenders, albeit with significantly less screentime, and is as great as usual, combining toughness, intelligence and resourcefulness behind an apparently vulnerable facade. Ben Barnes is also great as the military vet turned corporate security expert Billy Russo, combining a smooth businessman's spiel with more raw moments of genuine anger from his past experiences.

These characters and the story advance with an ease and depth that most of the other Netflix Marvel shows (which come nowhere near filling their thirteen-episode runs with interesting stories) can only envy. More debatable is the show's relationship with violence and the stance it takes with regards to the issues of gun control in the United States. It's a very gory show, easily the most graphically violence series in the Marvel/Netflix canon, despite the fact that Castle goes surprisingly long periods without massacring lots of bad guys. The violence is handled very matter-of-factly, with less emphasis on "cool" shots and action scenes (well, one "cool guys don't look at explosions" shot excepted) and more on combat being ugly, quick and painful. So the show does a reasonable job of not glorifying violence, even when it does have quite a lot of it. The gun control issue is more interesting, as Karen Page is - despite being a card-carrying liberal social justice advocate on every other front - a firm believer in her right to carry a concealed weapon (after her experiences in previous shows, unsurprisingly) and puts this point across forcefully several times. The show seems to want to get into this debate but ultimately dodges the issue.

The other main thematic debate carried through the show revolves around military veterans. The US treatment of its vets is a hot political issue (as it is in the UK for that matter) and the show manages to avoid grandstanding instead of showing the reality for the returning soldiers on the ground: variable levels of support in how they readjust to civilian life. Russo finds a way of adapting his battlefield skills to (apparently) honest employment back home, Curtis Hoyle becomes an insurance salesman and a mentor to younger soldiers suffering from PTSD, O'Connor is a boastful blowhard and Lewis Wilson's early attempts to find a way of readjusting to life back home gradually deteriorate until he becomes a menace to society and those around him. This storyline has been controversial, with Wilson becoming a homegrown terrorist, but the series does enough to show that his choices and his way out is not the right one and could have been averted with more support and understanding.

The first season of The Punisher is not flawless. Castle's solution to absolutely every problem being the deployment of ludicrous amounts of firepower is true to the character, but risks becoming a bit one-note, and there is as an at times comical disparity between how much damage our heroes can take in combat and keep trucking, and bad guy goons who go down with a single hit. But these problems are relatively minor.

The first season of The Punisher (****) is a surprisingly nuanced story that tackles a number of important issues, from veteran rights to gun violence, whilst delivering a well-paced (if maybe more slow-burning than most were expecting) story through the eyes of a number of well-drawn characters. Freed from the baggage of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Punisher shines, and hopefully this will be the model for the Netflix shows going forwards. The series is on general release on Netflix worldwide.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Ships of Babylon 5: Military Vessels

As a companion to the ongoing Babylon 5 Rewatch Project, here's some information on the military spacecraft that feature heavily in the show.

The Earth Alliance

The Earth Alliance utilises a wide variety of craft for combat and commercial purposes. The Earth Alliance is notable in being both potentially large - its population far outstrips that of Centauri Prime, Minbar or most of the non-aligned worlds - but relatively technologically primitive. Most notably, the Earth Alliance does not have artificial gravity technology, meaning that only its largest ships (which have rotating sections simulating gravity through centrifugal force) can spend prolonged periods in the field without having to return to a gravity well for the health of the crew.

The Earth Alliance's military is known as Earthforce.

SA-23E Mitchell-Hyundyne "Aurora" Starfury

The workhorse starfighter of Earthforce, the Aurora Starfury entered service after the Dilgar War and is a combination of earlier Earth technology with some influence from Dilgar designs. The Starfury is noted for its ruggedness, ability to absorb more punishment than most fighters, its survivability (the entire cockpit can detach as a lifeboat module) and its incredibly powerful quad thrusters, which allow the fighter to rotate 180 degrees in 0.2 seconds. The ship is armed with four major plasma cannons which give it impressive damage output and missiles can be fitted to the outboard wings for even more combat options, although these tend to increase the bulk and reduce the manoeuvrability of the fighter. A "Heavy Starfury" variant also exists with a rear-mounted weapons pod to allow targets to be engaged to the rear of the fighter.

The Starfury is a versatile and formidable fighter. During the Earth-Minbari War the Starfury was able to outfly and defeat Minbari Niall fighters one-on-one more than a third of the time, even given the Niall's superior speed, stealth defences and armaments.

The Starfury's biggest weakness is an inability to enter planetary atmospheres to pursue enemy craft with multi-theatre capabilities.

SA-23J Mitchell-Hyundyne "Thunderbolt" Starfury

Entering service in 2260, the Thunderbolt is Earthforce's most advanced starfighter. Incorporating many of the advantages of the Aurora-class, the Thunderbolt Starfury is armed with a rapid-firing "gatling" cannon for increase damage and rate of fire and is capable of entering planetary atmospheres. It can also be outfitted with missiles or high-yield bombs, allowing the fighter to fulfil a larger range of mission objectives than the standard Aurora Starfury.

However, the Thunderbolt is significantly larger than the standard Starfury and an easier target. Its greater bulk also reduces its effectiveness in zero-gee combat situations, where the Aurora remains the superior option.

Hyperion-class Heavy Cruiser

The Hyperion-class heavy cruiser was the backbone of the Earthforce fleet during the late 2230s and early 2240s. Entering service during the Dilgar War, the Hyperion is noted for its firepower (courtesy of three dual heavy cannon batteries), its manoeuvrability for a ship its size and the ease with which other weapon packages can be rotated on board. Many modern Hyperions have been retrofitted with the heavy beam weapons from the Omega-class, although the Hyperion's smaller power plant means that it cannot fire these beam weapons as quickly as the larger ships.

The Hyperion proved its limitations during the Minbari War and the ship has been reduced in role since then, now often serving as an escort to Omega-class destroyers.

Nova-class Dreadnought

One of the oldest designs still in use by Earthforce, the Nova-class was built around a large spaceframe with the idea of putting as many heavy guns onto a ship as possible. The philosophy, although unsubtle, proved sound during the Dilgar War when the Nova's massive bombardment capability took the ostensibly superior Dilgar ships by surprise and resulted in many enemy losses. The Nova fell out of fashion after the Dilgar War, with the Hyperion deemed more versatile. The relative lack of success of the Hyperion during that war, whilst the Nova's much heavier firepower allowed it to at least damage Minbari warcruisers more often, saw Earthforce revisit the design and adapt it for the later Omega-class.

Omega-class Destroyer

The newest, largest and most powerful ship in the Earthforce arsenal, entering service in 2249. The Omega-class was originally a refit of the Nova, stripping out the massive battery of pulse cannons in favour of a rotating spaceframe to allow more comfortable operating conditions and more sophisticated energy cannons. Derived from Narn designs purchased during the Earth-Minbari War, the Omega's main beam cannons are formidably powerful, especially when used in concert with the cruiser's massive missile batteries and pulse cannons. The rear-mounted beam and pulse cannons give the ship a near total coverage in all directions, preventing enemy ships from engaging from blind spots, and the ship is large enough to carry several squadrons of starfighters. The Omega also has a significant number of dorsal and ventral-mounted turrets for engaging fighters, shooting down ordinance and close-quarters engagements.

The Narn Regime

The youngest of the major powers, having gained their freedom from the Centauri only fifty years or so ago, the Narn Regime is arguably the technologically least well-developed. There is debate on this point, as Narn technology is a hodge-podge of material developed internally, stolen from the Centauri or bought from other worlds.

Like Earth, the Narn do not have artificial gravity. However, Narn physiology is more rugged and durable than that of humans and they can spend much greater periods of time in zero gravity with no (or reduced) ill effects.

Frazi Heavy Fighter

Partially inspired by the Earth Alliance Starfury, the Frazi heavy fighter is heavily armed, relatively fast and well-armoured. It is particularly suited to long-range combat missions and swarms of Frazi fighters can give even the technologically superior Centauri pause. The Frazi does have several weaknesses, however. Its weapons are oriented around the forward-facing cannons and it can be vulnerable to attack from other quarters with less capability than the Starfury for spinning quickly to engage new targest. The Frazi is designed to operate in atmosphere, so is less capable than fighters designed solely for space combat, although this does also make it more versatile in the mission parameters it can tackle.

Ta'Loth-class Assault Cruiser

An ugly design, the Ta'Loth was one of the first capital-class designs churned out by the Narn Regime in the years following the Centauri withdrawal. The ship is a mix of Narn and alien technology, with heavy firepower but relatively limited armour and a vulnerable, externally-mounted control centre. The ship is ungainly and slow to manoeuvre, and is usually employed either if light resistance is expected, under heavy fighter cover or for its primary mission goal, the delivery of large numbers of assault troops onto a target planet or enemy ship.

G'Quan-class Heavy Cruiser

The pride of the Narn fleet, the G'Quan class is the newest, sleekest and most advanced design in the Narn inventory. The G'Quan is a formidable warship, relatively fast and heavily armed with rapid-firing pulse cannons. Most significant are its two forward-mounted beam cannons, which can inflict devastating damage at close or long range. The ship also has heavy ordinance launchers and area-denial weapons, capable of firing energy mines up to several thousand kilometres distant. These combined make the G'Quan a dangerous vessel to engage, particularly at range.

At close range the G'Quan suffers from several significant design flaws, most notably the emphasis on its forward-mounted weapons which make the ship vulnerable to attack from the flanks and particularly the rear. Its armour is also not as heavy as might be wished, with the designers preferring to focus on speed over protection.

The Centauri Republic

The Centauri are one of the older powers in the galaxy and are technologically more advanced than any known race bar the Vorlons and Minbari. However, the Centauri have also stagnated in their technological development over the past couple of centuries, preferring an emphasis on tried-and-tested techniques rather than innovation. Still, the Centauri should not be underestimated in battle.

The Centauri Navy is a large force which is capable of engaging in a large variety of mission types on multiple fronts simultaneously. Earthforce analysts characterise the Centauri military as a "sleeping lion" which would be exceptionally difficult to defeat if provoked to hostility.

Sentri-class Fighter

The Sentri-class fighter is the backbone of the Centauri military, a light and highly manoeuvrable starfighter which has an incredibly tight turning circle and usually attack in large numbers. Centauri pilots develop instinctive relationships with their fighters' AI systems, even letting themselves black out for a few seconds during high-gee turns with confidence that the autopilot can fill in until they get back in the fight. The Sentri's two pulse cannons provide enough firepower to deal with most targets easily, and the Sentri has atmospheric capabilities.

However, the Sentri has significant weaknesses. The fighter is the most lightly-armoured of any of the major races and cannot sustain much damage before being destroyed. It also can't turn on a dime like the Starfury, and its lighter weapons mean that the pilot has to be extremely accurate and persistent to ensure a kill. During skirmishes with the Narn, the Sentri has proven to be a match for the Frazi only when flown by skilled pilots or when they significantly outnumber the enemy.

Vorchan-class Light Cruiser

The Centauri are unusual among the major races for emphasising the role of a light cruiser (or heavy gunship) in its military. The Vorchan-class cruiser is notable for its speed, manoeuvrability and powerful ion cannons. These ships are always deployed in squadrons of at least three and sometimes four ships, breaking to surround and bring down considerably larger vessels. It is also the smallest-known ship (at present) capable of forming its own jump point. The Centauri like to use these ships for ambush and hit-and-run attacks that keep the enemy off-balance whilst more formidable ships are brought to bear.

Despite these capabilities, the Vorchans are still relatively lightly-armoured and not a formidable threat in one-on-one combat with the heavy cruisers of almost any other races (including the ostensibly inferior Narns). They are also reliant on escort Sentris to protect their flanks, but are not large enough to launch fighters themselves, reducing their operational range considerably.

Primus-class Battlecruiser

The Primus-class battlecruiser is the pride and joy of the Centauri fleet. The Primus is a large warship which eschews heavy beam weapons in favour of a massive array of ion cannons and turrets mounted on both the dorsal and ventral surfaces. The Primus can engage multiple targets simultaneously or concentrate its weapons fire in massive barrages. The Primus can also engage in planetary bombardments (indeed, an older variant of Primus carried mass drivers to bombard planets with asteroids, but these were removed after the Centauri signed treaties banning their use) and carries a squadron Sentri-class fighters for defence. A smaller variant of Primus is also used as the Imperial Flagship for the use of the Emperor himself.

The Primus has several notable weaknesses. It is devastating in close-quarters battle but is vulnerable in long-range engagements. Its reliance on ion blasts - which, although devastating if they hit, can be dispersed relatively easily by interceptor fire - can also limits its effectiveness. Most notably, the Primus may be large but it's not as tough as it may appear, and its armour protection is not as strong as might be wished. The Primus is best-used in conjunction with fleets of Vorchans and Sentris for this reason.

The Minbari Federation

The Minbari are the oldest of the known races (bar perhaps the Vorlons), having been a spacefaring civilisation for well over a thousand years. Their technology is centuries ahead of even the Centauri, as the Earth Alliance discovered to its great cost in the Earth-Minbari War of 2245-48.

Fully a third of the Minbari civilisation - the warrior caste - is dedicated to combat and battle, although as a species they are surprisingly adaptable and both the worker and religious castes can fight if pressed.

Nial Heavy Fighter

The Nial fighter is the most dangerous single-pilot vehicle in known space. The Nial is insanely fast, its gravitational drive allowing it to reverse momentum, move in different directions and change attitude very quickly. Its three rapid-firing plasma beam cannons are simply the most powerful weapons ever seen on a fighter its size, and even a small number of Nials can overwhem and destroy the heavy cruisers of other species in relatively short order. Minbari technology also gives the Nial stealth capabilities, making it hard for enemy ships to lock on.

The Nial has few weaknesses, but they do exist. The Nial can operate in atmosphere and close to planets, but its gravimetric drives are reduced in efficiency, which can give other ships the chance to match their speed and manoeuvrability. The Nial's superior agility is matched by the Earthforce Starfury's ability to spin and change direction even faster than the Nial. Although the Starfury is still outmatched by the Niall, the difference is much closer than any other race (even the Centauri Sentri) and the Minbar were given a rude surprise during the war where Starfury squadrons deployed in numbers could check a Nial advance, if not backed up by heavier vessels.

Tinashi-class War Frigate

The Tinashi-class was introduced over a thousand years ago and is the oldest Minbari ship still in regular use, although it is now rarely seen. It was once the most powerful and largest ship in the Minbari fleet, but over the centuries it became less capable and was reduced in capability from a cruiser to a frigate.

Although the spaceframe and design is ancient, the class has been periodically refitted with the latest technology, including Minbari stealth systems and beam weapons, making it still a formidable vessel to face in combat.

Sharlin-class Warcruiser

The Minbari warcruiser is a sight know to strike terror into the hearts of other races. The Sharlin is, simply, the most formidable warship in known space (bar, again, Vorlon designs). Equipped with long-range plasma beam weapons capable of vapourising targets hundreds of kilometres away and a plethora of close-in beam weapons, the Sharlin fairly bristles with destructive potential. Its armour is extremely thick and the ship's navigation systems are so precise that it can jump in and out of hyperspace mid-battle, allowing it to quickly evade ambushes and then turn the tables on the enemy. The Minbari have also been known to use hyperspace jump points themselves as weapons, tearing enemy ships apart before jumping in to mop up the survivors.

In recorded history only two Sharlin warcruisers are known to have been lost to enemy action: one was destroyed by a nuclear mine and another was rammed by a Nova-class dreadnought (part of the ship survived but it had to be scuttled later), both during the Earth-Minbari War.

The Vorlon Empire

The most enigmatic of the major races, the Vorlons are believed to use organic technology and employ weapons, scanners and defence systems which make even the Minbari appear to be archaic. Vorlon ships have very rarely been seen in action, and the few times they have have stood as a warning to other races not to challenge them in battle.

Vorlon Fighter

The Vorlon fighter is small but equipped with an energy discharge weapon which operates on unknown principles. Most targets are destroyed instantly by the hit.

Vorlon Transport

The most commonly-seen Vorlon vessel is the modestly-named "transport" which moves the rarely-appointed Vorlon ambassadors from post to post. The Vorlon transports are very heavily armed with an incredibly powerful beam weapon which can vapourise capital ships in a single blast, leading some to classify them as medium or even heavy cruisers instead, despite their relatively limited size.

Vorlon Heavy Cruiser

The Vorlon heavy cruiser is one of the largest ships in known space, at almost two miles in length. The heavy cruiser is equipped with a massive forward beam weapon, a scaled-up version of that on the transport. This weapon has never been seen to fire at full strength, but is considered to be unsurvivable.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The Cities of Fantasy series is debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read it there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Friday, 17 November 2017

BABYLON 5: Season 3, Episodes 1-2

Season 3: Point of No Return

“The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. It failed.
“But, in the year of the Shadow War, it became something greater: our last, best hope for victory.
“The year is 2260. The place: Babylon 5.”
       - Earthforce Commander Susan Ivanova

Regular Cast
Captain John Sheridan                                    Bruce Boxleitner
Commander Susan Ivanova                            Claudia Christian
Security Chief Michael Garibaldi                   Jerry Doyle
Ambassador Delenn                                        Mira Furlan
Dr. Stephen Franklin                                       Richard Biggs
Marcus Cole                                                    Jason Carter
Security Aide Zack Allan                               Jeff Conaway
Vir Cotto                                                         Stephen Furst
Lennier                                                            Bill Mumy
G’Kar                                                              Andreas Katsulas
Ambassador Londo Mollari                            Peter Jurasik

Creator                                                            J. Michael Straczynski
Producer                                                          John Copeland
Executive Producers                                       J. Michael Straczynski & Douglas Netter
Conceptual Consultant                                   Harlan Ellison
Production Designer                                       John Iacovelli
Costume Designer                                          Anne Bruice-Aling
Visual Effects Designer                                  Ron Thornton
Visual Effects Producers                                Foundation Imaging
Makeup Supervisor                                        John Vulich
Makeup Producers                                         Optic Nerve Studios
Music Composer                                            Christopher Franke
Music Performers                         Christopher Franke & the Berlin Symphonic Film Orchestra

Between-Season Changes

Unlike the previous year, the changes between Season 2 and Season 3 were relatively restrained. The biggest change was that J. Michael Straczynski decided during the planning of the season that he would write all 22 episodes himself. This was because the situation in the show fluctuated rapidly over the course of the season and there wasn’t enough time to fit in more than a couple of stand-alone episodes, so it was simply easier for JMS himself to write them all. This move saw the leave-taking of script editor Lawrence G. DiTillio from the show, since JMS notoriously refused to let anyone tamper with his scripts after he had finished them. Larry went on to write scripts for cult CGI series Transformers: Beast Wars and would later return to write an episode of Crusade.

Straczynski claimed that his decision to write all of Season 3 – and late Season 4 and most of Season 5 – set a record for the largest number of cumulative episodes written by a single writer. In total, Straczynski wrote 52 sequential episodes of Babylon 5, running from B17 through to E3. However, the subsequent episode E4 was still co-written by Straczynski (with Harlan Ellison). Including that episode, the correct cumulative tally is (running up to episode E7, as E8 was written by Neil Gaiman) 56 episodes and 41 hours, including the entirety of Seasons 3 and 4.

Although this is almost certainly an American record, it is not a world record: as noted by Andy Lane in his seminal Babylon File, British writer Ted Willis wrote nine complete seasons of British police drama Dixon of Dock Green – 201 episodes and 113.5 hours – between 1955 and 1963.

On the cast front the biggest move was the departure of Andrea Thompson as Talia Winters and the introduction of Jason Carter as Ranger Marcus Cole. Thompson actually left in episode B19 since she was disappointed at the amount of screen time she was getting in Season 2 (and, from the look of it, she would have had even less to do in Season 3). At the BabCom ’96 convention she revealed she would be willing to make one-off appearances to resolve her storyline, but Straczynski chose a clean break and only rarely referred to her character again. The character of Marcus came in as a “free-roaming” agent separate from the Earthforce personnel and able to do things those in the military couldn’t. He also provided Ivanova with a new sparring partner, resulting in some nice dialogue scenes between them.

Between seasons Stephen Furst was offered a regular role in a sitcom called Misery Loves Company. Furst preferred to remain on Babylon 5, as it was a serious and more dramatic role, but Misery was also more money and gave him many more episodes to appear in. He discussed the situation with Straczynski who noted that the shooting schedules for the two shows, both filmed in Los Angeles, also allowed the possibility of Furst doing both shows; as a result, Furst was allowed to depart the show in episode C3 and return in C12 when shooting was completed (he was also able to fit in a couple of other appearances inbetween). Misery was not picked up for a back season order, so Furst was able to return full-time.

Season 3 was originally going to be called I am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds, taken from a Hindu saying and quoted by Professor Oppenheimer upon the detonation of the first atom bomb in July 1945 at Los Alamos, New Mexico. JMS realised this was too apocalyptic (and was better suited to the following season, though he chose not to use it there either) and changed it. His next choice was War Without End, but thought this over-emphasised the Shadow War which didn’t start until the last third of the season. He eventually settled on Point of No Return.

The CGI effects were upgraded again between-seasons, this time resulting in a much more believable and impressive explosion effect and higher-resolution shots. The time needed to render scenes also dropped slightly, which was a good thing as several episodes pushed Foundation Imaging to the edge of their abilities in rendering space battles and composite shots. However, the relationship between Foundation Imaging and Babylon Productions began to strain somewhat this season, with several errors in episodes C8 and C10, the result of a higher workload for the effects team with no corresponding rise in pay (which forced Foundation Imaging to take on more work outside of Babylon 5). This relationship would break down altogether between Seasons 3 and 4, and we will cover that in the episode guide for next season.

The title sequence for this season was once again changed. A collection of scenes from previous seasons were used along with a new, slow fly-past of the station with the actors appearing out of jump points. The first pass of the title sequence had the White Star flying at the camera with weapons blazing, but J. Michael Straczynski didn’t like the shot and asked for it to be redone with the final shot of the ship spinning around. Preview tapes of the first two episodes went out with the original shot still included, however.

Christopher Franke provided a new title theme for this season, rather than simply creating a new version of the same tune as with the first two seasons. The new theme melds elements of “Requiem for the Line” from episode A8 and the music used for both the Shadow battle and the bombing of the Narn homeworld from episode B20. The original theme music was used for the end credits of episodes C1-C4 before being replaced from episode C5 onwards; the original UK broadcast, however, had the new theme music used throughout the season.


Red Dwarf XII

The mining ship Red Dwarf continues on its long quest to return home, its dysfunctional crew consisting of the last human being alive, a hologram of his superior officer, a neurotic cleaning droid and a lifeform descended from the ship's cat.

In 2018 Red Dwarf will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary, making it comfortably the longest-running SF comedy show of all time (and one of the longest-running SF shows full stop, with only Doctor Who and Star Trek now outliving it). There are several reasons for its longevity: a core cast of four charismatic performers, a strong sense of humour that riffs on both human nature and cutting-edge scientific ideas and multi-year breaks between seasons that allow both the cast and writers to refresh themselves and come back with renewed energy. So whilst the show started thirty years ago, it's only now concluding its twelfth season.

The twelfth season is of a pair with last year's eleventh, written and filmed alongside it and recorded at the same time. This raised the spectre that writer Doug Naylor (alas, co-creator and co-writer of the show's golden age Rob Grant remains absent) might be burned out or tired, but this is not the case. Season 12 is, if anything, slightly better than Season 11, with fewer weaker moments and some much funnier moments rooted in both character (always Naylor's weak spot compared to Grant) and SF.

The season starts off well with Cured, which asks the question if people can be "cured" of evil and results in a classic Red Dwarf story beat where Lister jams on electric guitar with a "good" clone of Adolf Hitler. Siliconia, where Kryten is "rescued" from slavery by fellow mechanoids, is a bit throwaway but does have some great sight gags and does lean into the SF trope of the "happy slave" who is programmed to enjoy their treatment (something it'd be interested to see Star Wars address at some point).

The season's weakest episode is Timewave, set on a ship where criticism has been outlawed, which isn't as funny as it wants to be and has some very lazy gags. Mechocracy, in which the machines on Red Dwarf go on strike and Rimmer and Kryten stage an election to win back their loyalty, is solid if forgettable.

The season saves the best for last: M-Corp is a satirical take on Apple which could have felt lazy but actually steps up to being amusing and also makes some nice, intelligent points about (literally) blind brand loyalty and giving corporations ownership of everything. Skipper, the best episode of the season and possibly the last six seasons, taps into the well of Rimmer's self-loathing and disappointment in a way that hasn't been done since Grant was still on board. Although the episode suffers from some continuity issues (the show apparently forgetting that the events of Seasons 7 and 8 happened, and the existence of Ace Rimmer), it is extremely funny and brings back some fan-favourite characters without overusing them to boot.

The cast are a well-oiled machine at this point, the guest stars do a good job (although Johnny Vegas's guest appearance feels a bit incongruous) and the show does a lot with what is clearly a limited budget, a "problem" which I suspect has resulted in the show's improved quality since the relatively high-budget days of Seasons 7-9, since it forces a reliance on better dialogue and ideas rather than flashy visual effects.

For a TV show about to enter its fourth decade, Red Dwarf (****) is in surprisingly rude health. Superior to the previous two seasons (which were okay, if not outstanding) and certainly far better than the three weak seasons before that, the twelfth season of the show sees it getting back to, if not its best, certainly not far off. The season will be available from 21 November 2017 on Blu-Ray (UK, USA) and DVD (UK, USA).

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Idea: why not adapt Guy Gavriel Kay's novels for the screen?

Fantasy is big right now. We've heard lots of news about Amazon's new Lord of the Rings TV project, Game of Thrones is wrapping up but will have spin-offs, Netflix is producing a Witcher TV show, Showtime are doing a Name of the Wind prequel show, Starz have American Gods and even Spike TV is still trying to make Shannara happen. There are signs that the fantasy bubble may be cresting - Sony's Wheel of Time project still hasn't found a home despite it being a slam dunk - but I think there's still room for a few different projects out there.

One author whose work has not hit the screens yet is Guy Gavriel Kay. It's easy to see why: Kay's novels tend to be too long to make for comfortable two-hour movies, but too short and too self-contained for long-running TV shows that can be exploited for years on end. His books are also based closely on real history with (relatively) little traditional magic, which used to make them a tough sell. However, it could be a point in its favour with some of the other upcoming projects having a lot more magic and the need for high budgets, whilst Kay's work could be adapted a bit more easily and could tap into the Game of Thrones fanbase looking for more work that emphasises politics and characters over flashy effects.

One interesting solution would be to do Kay's novels as a Fargo-style anthology series, where each season has its own storyline, characters and actors but take place in the same universe, with events earlier in the setting informing events set centuries later. It would be an unorthodox approach, but could be interesting.

I'd see this series unfolding as follows, with each season corresponding to a novel (or series) with the setting and time period that roughly influenced the book following:

Season 1: The Sarantine Mosaic, 6th Century Byzantium, Justinian's wars
Season 2: Under Heaven, 8th Century China, An Lushan Rebellion
Season 3: The Last Light of the Sun, 9th Century England, Alfred the Great
Season 4: The Lions of Al-Rassan, 11th Century Spain, El Cid
Season 5: River of Stars, 12 Century China, Jin-Song Wars
Season 6: Children of Earth and Sky, 15th Century Dubrovnik, after the fall of Constantinople

It might also be possible to incorporate A Song for Arbonne, which takes place in a different world but is heavily influenced by the Albigensian Crusade in 12th Century France, into this scheme.

Tigana, although influenced by Renaissance Italy, features a very different world background with much more overt magic. It would probably be better served by a separate movie adaptation. The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy and its stand-alone sequel, Ysabel, could form another, separate TV series.

To date, the only interest in Kay's work has been from director Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond), who held the rights to The Lions of Al-Rassan for a while. Hopefully someone will pick up the rights to Kay's work and bring it to a wider audience. One of the finest living fantasists, his work deserves to be better-known.

The new LORD OF THE RINGS TV deal, explained

It's been a busy week or so for Tolkien and TV fans trying to parse the extraordinary news that Amazon TV are developing a television series based on The Lord of the Rings. In the light of more revelations, it may be useful to take stock of what is going on and what might and will happen next.

So what has happened?

In brief, the Tolkien Estate and Trust - the family and company which handles J.R.R. Tolkien's affairs after his death in 1973 - has joined forces with Warner Brothers and its subsidiary New Line (who produced the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, and co-produced the Hobbit film trilogy) to create a new television series based on the Middle-earth works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Amazon Television have greenlit a multi-season commitment to the project, so will be developing the series immediately with a view to it airing within a few years.

What is this TV show about? Is it a remake of the Lord of the Rings movies?

Contrary to early reports, no. The new TV series will apparently be set between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and will use material from the appendices to The Lord of the Rings to flesh out this time period. Possible subjects for the TV show are the adventures of young Aragorn, the gradual corruption of Saruman, the dwarves led by Balin trying to retake Moria, Gollum's hunt for the One Ring, Faramir and Boromir as young solders in the Gondorian army and the childhood adventures of Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin.

If it's not Lord of the Rings, why is it using the Lord of the Rings name?

For legal reasons. Warner Brothers/New Line only have the television rights to The Lord of the Rings, not any of the other Middle-earth books, so will need to use the Lord of the Rings name to signify that. Also, as brand-awareness goes, it's the most attention-grabbing name to use.

Wait, don't they also have the rights to The Hobbit?

The Hobbit's rights are a complex mess (see the "brief history" of the rights below). They were originally owned by United Artists and then picked up by Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) when they took over UA. Warner Brothers and New Line allied with MGM to make the Hobbit trilogy, but by all accounts it was a nightmarish legal process lasting the better part of a decade to get there (which is why there was such as huge gap between The Return of the King and An Unexpected Journey). For this new TV series, Warner Brothers and New Line appear to have taken the view that it is not worth the trouble of aligning with MGM again, so are proceeding solely with material derived from The Lord of the Rings.

What about The Silmarillion?

The Tolkien Estate does not appear to have sold the rights to The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin or Beren and Luthien (the other four of the six canonical Middle-earth books, alongside The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) so these stories remain off-limits for now.

If the Tolkien Estate hasn't sold the rights to The Silmarillion, why are they involved?

This is a more speculative area, because the Tolkien Estate has not made a direct statement (their only comment so far has been through a Hollywood lawyer). Of the Tolkien Estate's members, Christopher Tolkien (J.R.R. Tolkien's eldest surviving son and literary executor) was by far the most vocal in his opposition to adaptations based on J.R.R. Tolkien's work. However, Christopher resigned in August this year and it appears that the other board members are far less vociferous in their objections: Priscilla Tolkien (Christopher's younger sister), for example, advised Ralph Bakshi on his animated version of The Lord of the Rings in 1978 and Simon Tolkien (Christopher's eldest son) supported Peter Jackson's movie trilogy.

In addition, the Tolkien Estate had to go to court several times to defend its rights in different matters relating to both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, matters which may not have arisen had the Estate been more closely involved from the start. The rest of the Estate may have also taken the view that if this adaptation is proceeding anyway, they might as well take a role to try to exercise a positive influence on the process.

How long will the series be?

The commitment by Amazon is apparently for five seasons and a potential spin-off show.

What is the deal costing?

Amazon had to pay between $200 million and $250 million for the rights up-front, along with certain guarantees for how much money they would put into the series budget. Apparently the per-season budget is guaranteed at between $100 million and $150 million, although the number of episodes per season has not yet been decided. Assuming the $250 million and $150 million figures are accurate, this deal will cost Amazon approximately $1 billion, or almost twice the total cost of Game of Thrones on HBO. This would make the series comfortably the most expensive TV show ever made.

Is anyone from the Jackson movie series involved?

At the moment, no. Apparently Amazon has not spoken to or approached director Peter Jackson, writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, artists John Howe and Alan Lee, Weta Workshop or any actors or crew involved in the making of either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings at all.

Will the series use the movie art design, sets, effects, actors or other elements?

Given Warner Brother/New Line's involvement, that certainly is possible. However, you'd assume they would be trying to get on board the talent from the films if that is the case. In addition, it's now eighteen years since the movie trilogy entered production. For a TV series set before the original trilogy, it would be difficult to "de-age" actors for recurring roles on a regular, ongoing basis.

It's more likely that the series will focus on new castmembers playing younger versions of the film characters and will re-cast roles where necessary.

Will the new series be filmed in New Zealand or elsewhere?

That has yet to be decided. New Zealand would remain the most logical place to shoot the series, but it might be that an argument could also be made for Canada, especially since the production would have the budget to move out of the "within two hours' drive of Vancouver or Toronto" range that a lot of Canadian-shot shows are restricted to. Another possibility would be Eastern Europe, particularly places like Hungary and Romania which have emerged with major tax and cost incentives to shoot there.

When will the new TV series air?

Amazon clearly want to deploy this series as their flagship show in the battle with Netflix and the looming threat of Disney's new streaming service, which will launch with a live-action Star Wars TV series in late 2019. Amazon may try to match that launch date, although this would be tight with no creative talent attached to the project yet. 2020 may be more realistic.

Wait, what do you mean no creative talent is attached yet?

In a fairly unprecedented move, Amazon have bought the project without a writer, showrunner, producer, director or any actors attached. Apparently Warner Brothers and the Tolkien Estate are happy for the network to assemble a creative team themselves. When talks were in progress with HBO, HBO proposed using Jane Tranter's Bad Wolf Productions (which HBO has a stake in) company to handle the series, but when discussions stalled that option appears to have disappeared.

What was HBO's involvement?

This TV deal was proposed to HBO, Netflix and Amazon, since it was (correctly) assumed that they would be the only three companies with deep enough pockets to entertain the deal. HBO turned the project down for cost and because of their commitment to their ongoing Game of Thrones franchise (although GoT is due to end in late 2018/early 2019, HBO has multiple spin-off shows in development). Netflix also appears to have balked at the cost, offering $100 million instead for the rights and being outbid by Amazon. Netflix also have their own epic fantasy TV show in development, based on the Witcher novels and short stories by Andrzej Sapkowski.

A Brief(ish) History of the Middle-earth Movie and TV Rights

J.R.R. Tolkien (b. 1892) created Middle-earth in or around 1916, when he began writing a book eventually entitled The Silmarillion, a collection of fictional legends and stories set in a fantasy land called Middle-earth. Tolkien spent the rest of his life developing The Silmarillion and died in 1973 with the book still incomplete. However, he used the incomplete "Legendarium" as a source for two novels published in his lifetime: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien wrote The Hobbit between around 1930 and 1936, and it was published in 1937. He then wrote the much longer Lord of the Rings between 1937 and 1947, spent two years editing it and a further five years trying to get it published; it finally appeared in three volumes in 1954 and 1955 and was a modest initial success. However, a very public and famous copyright battle erupted in 1965 when an American publisher, Ace, released an unauthorised paperback edition of the book. Tolkien and his publishers won the battle and many curious readers, particularly in the United States, picked up the novel. Thanks to strong word-of-mouth and an adoption by the 1960s counter-culture, the novel's sales exploded worldwide between 1965 and 1969.

In 1969 Tolkien, keen to ensure the financial security of his grandchildren, sold the screen rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to United Artists for a significant sum and these rights were then further acquired by producer Saul Zaentz in 1976. However, United Artists believed that anyone wanting to adapt the books would need to start with The Hobbit and saw it as the more valuable asset. Accordingly, United Artists sold only the full screen and production rights to The Lord of the Rings to Zaentz and held onto distribution rights to The Hobbit. These rights were acquired by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1981 when they bought United Artists (who were in danger of going bust after the massive failure of the movie Heaven's Gate).

Zaentz and UA collaborated to allow the production of a cartoon version of The Hobbit with animation studio Rankin/Bass in 1977 and an animated version of The Lord of the Rings in 1978 with Ralph Bakshi. When the producers could not agree on terms to make a second part of The Lord of the Rings, they parted ways and Zaentz, US and Rankin/Bass reconvened to make an animated sequel called The Return of the King in 1980. However, by the mid-1980s the rights to The Lord of the Rings had reverted to Zaentz whilst UA/MGM retained some rights to The Hobbit.

In 1995 New Zealand film-maker Peter Jackson began considering plans for a Tolkien trilogy. He proposed a one-film adaptation of The Hobbit and a two-movie version of The Lord of the Rings. Several studios expressed an interest, but most notably Miramax, the studio owned by the Weinstein Brothers. Miramax spoke to Zaentz and found him willing to sell the rights, but quickly became aware of the MGM stake in The Hobbit rights. Miramax was unable to meet MGM's price for The Hobbit rights and suggested that Jackson proceed with The Lord of the Rings alone. Later Miramax, suffering financial problems, reduced the scope of the proposed film from two movies to one. Jackson was unable to comply, but found a new partner in the shape of New Line Cinema, who not only embraced the project but gave Jackson three movies to adapt The Lord of the Rings. The three movies were released between 2001 and 2003 and grossed just under $3 billion at the box office, becoming a cultural phenomenon. New Line licensed the film rights to The Lord of the Rings and also production rights to The Hobbit from Zaentz for an unclear period of time, but it seems to have extended into the early-to-mid 2010s.

In 2008 Warner Brothers bought out New Line and inherited their licensed rights. With considerably deeper pockets, they moved to ally with MGM and secured the rights to make The Hobbit. Originally Jackson and director Guillermo Del Toro planned a two-film version of The Hobbit and a third "bridging movie" linking The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings, drawing on the appendices in the latter. However, Warner Brothers got cold feet on this idea, eventually insisting on three movies based on the very short Hobbit (which is only one-fifth the length of The Lord of the Rings). Del Toro quit the project and Peter Jackson was persuaded to take over at short notice, resulting in the Hobbit trilogy of movies released between 2012 and 2014. The trilogy took slightly more money than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but on a much higher budget and the critical reception was lukewarm in comparison.

Meanwhile, when J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973 his literary rights were inherited by his third son and literary executor, Christopher. Christopher, working alongside several assistants (most notably Guy Gavriel Kay, a future, highly accomplished fantasy author in his own right), assembled his father's incomplete manuscripts to publish The Silmarillion in 1977. A further collection of short stories, essays, maps and background information on Middle-earth was published as Unfinished Tales in 1980. Along with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, these two books would be considered part of the Tolkien "canon" (although debate would continue to surround the later two books due to Christopher's editorial choices, some of which he himself would later regret). Christopher Tolkien also published the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series, which collects every early draft, abandoned fragment and partial manuscript ever written by Tolkien on the subject of Middle-earth. Later on, drawing from the same material, Christopher Tolkien would produce The Children of Hurin (2007) and Beren and Luthien (2017), fleshing out episodes from The Silmarillion into longer stories.

Christopher, as J.R.R. Tolkien's literary executor, was 100% adamant that he would never sell the film or TV rights to The Silmarillion or the other posthumous material and this remained constant, right up to Christopher resigning as head of the Tolkien Estate in August 2017. At present the film and television rights to those books have still not been sold, but with Christopher's departure it might be that this changes at some point in the future.

One thing that is clear is that Christopher's departure and Amazon's entry to the TV market are both gamechangers for the fields of fantasy and television.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The Cities of Fantasy series is debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read it there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Christopher Tolkien resigns as head of the Tolkien Estate

In news which suddenly explains a lot of what's been going on in the last week or two, it's been confirmed that Christopher Tolkien, the third son and literary executor of J.R.R. Tolkien, has resigned his position as head of the Tolkien Estate at the age of 92.

Christopher Tolkien has been the literary heir to his father's writings, particularly those set in Middle-earth. However, he has rejected substantial sums of money to continue his father's work and write new material in the setting. Instead, he has restricted himself to editing and presenting his father's unpublished work for public consumption. This has resulted in two further canonical (or mostly so) books in the Middle-earth legendarium: The Silmarillion (1977) and Unfinished Tales (1980). He has also edited and published The Children of Hurin (2007) and Beren and Luthien (2017), episodes from The Silmarillion that Tolkien fleshed out with more detail but had not completed before his death in 1973. Christopher Tolkien arranged for them to be published by combining multiple drafts and narratives into single stories.

Between 1983 and 1996 Christopher Tolkien also published The History of Middle-earth, a twelve-volume series which published every single early draft, fragment and writing of J.R.R. Tolkien's on the subject of Middle-earth and showed the development of the legendarium from the earliest concepts right through to ideas and material Tolkien was working on at the time of his death (including, even, a brief idea for a sequel to The Lord of the Rings which he soon abandoned).

Christopher Tolkien's position as head of the Tolkien Estate and Trust means that he has made all of the major business decisions related to the properties of J.R.R. Tolkien. J.R.R. Tolkien sold the film, TV and merchandising rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in 1969 (from which New Line and Warner Brothers got the rights to make the Peter Jackson movies), but Christopher has refused to sell similar rights to the other Middle-earth books despite some very generous offers from studios. Other senior members of the Tolkien trust include his younger sister Priscilla, his nephew Michael and his second son Adam, along with Christopher's second wife, Baillie. Christopher Tolkien famously disapproved of the Peter Jackson movies and even ostracised his eldest son Simon and his nephew Royd when they approved of the films and even accepted cameo roles during filming (Simon has since reconciled with his father and is now formally part of the Tolkien Estate).

Christopher resigned from the Tolkien Estate on 31 August 2017. The proposed Amazon television series has been in the offing for at least a couple of months, so Christopher's retirement seems to have coincided with a desire by the Estate to be more open to the idea of adaptations: Priscilla Tolkien approved of the 1978 Ralph Bakshi animated movie and even provided some advice to the film-maker, whilst the other members of the Estate seem to have wanted to take greater oversight to, amongst other things, avoid the legal problems that cropped up several times between 2004 (when they began legal action to get the film finances properly audited) and this year, when they concluded a legal action begun over the use of Tolkien characters in slot and gambling machines, rights which were not included in the original 1969 deal.

The question now is if the Holy Grail - the rights to The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales - will be made available. They haven't so far and it might be disrespectful to Christopher Tolkien to discuss this whilst he remains alive (due to his staunch opposition in the past), but it might be now that doors that once seemed firmly locked and closed are now, at least, slightly ajar.

One thing is certain: that all fans of fantasy literature owe Christopher Tolkien a tremendous debt and thanks for ensuring his father's work reached appreciative readers and in a way that was respectful and of the highest integrity.