Monday, 27 March 2017

The two greatest video games of all time get new editions

The two greatest video games of all time (arguably) are both being re-released in spanking new editions fit for modern gamers.


First up is StarCraft Remastered. Blizzard have confirmed that they are re-releasing the original, classic StarCraft and its expansion Brood War is a new edition complete with new resolutions (essential as the old game had a locked, low-res perspective) and reworked graphics. Surprisingly, the game is still in 2D and does not use the StarCraft II engine. Although not confirmed, it is also assumed that they will be replacing the old, CG cut-scenes with reworked ones.

The original version of StarCraft will remain available but, impressively, will now be free. Even more startlingly, as StarCraft Remastered uses the same codebase as the original, players will be able to switch between modes at the touch of a button and original players will be able to play against those using the new version of the game in multiplayer.

More controversially, the UI will apparently not be improved. This means that you will still only be able to select 12 units at a time and you won't be able to auto-send newly-built units to resources.

Despite these age-old limitations, StarCraft is still widely regarded as one of the best real-time strategy games of all time (challenged only by Company of Heroes, Hostile Waters and Homeworld), mainly due to its sublime unit balance between three completely different sides and fast-placed gameplay. Arguably, StarCraft II added too many variables to the mix and made the game a bit more challenging, whilst the original's smaller roster still allowed for a wide mix of strategies whilst being more constrained. Less arguably, the original game has a far better-written, more interest and more concise story than the sprawling, increasingly silly sequel.


Also getting the remaster treatment is (probably, although it's not been quite 100% confirmed yet) Planescape: Torment. Widely-regarded as the greatest CRPG of all time, the game is set in the Outer Planes and the bizarre city of Sigil, and sees the player taking on the role of the Nameless One, an immortal entity who has to discover the secrets of his past and the nature of his own reality. The game is notable for its commitment to dialogue, characterisation and ideas over combat, blood and looting. The game recently gained a "spiritual successor" in the form of Torment: Tides of Numenera.

Planescape: Torment Enhanced Edition is being handled by Beamdog, who previously handled the expanded and enhanced versions of both Baldur's Gate games and the two Icewind Dale titles.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

They called it the Second Pulse: an unexpected collapse of glacial valleys in Antarctica that poured billions more tons of ice into the world oceans than was ever expected. Global sea levels rose by fifty feet in a few years, displacing hundreds of millions of people and triggering an economic meltdown. The world recovered, but it had to adapt.


In New York the lower half of Manhattan was inundated, becoming a "Super-Venice". New Yorkers are a hardy breed and they keep trucking along, taking skybridges and boats to work instead of taxis and trains, and still grumbling about the weather. For the inhabitants of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building on Madison Square, life continues in this changed world. But when two residents are kidnapped and the city is threatened by a tropical storm, the tower becomes the centre of a sequence of events which could change the world.

New York, New York, so great they named it twice. In novels and on screen, it's been blown up, hit by meteors, invaded by aliens, attacked by Godzilla and King Kong and been subjected to every disaster that the human mind can conjure. Kim Stanley Robinson is the latest author to take a crack at subjecting the city to catastrophe, but his one is both much simpler and more plausible: a significant rise in sea levels. Lower Manhattan is transformed into a series of islands, buildings connected together by bridges and boat taxis, the city at considerably greater risk from storm surges and hurricanes but New Yorkers carrying on as normal because that's what they do.

Robinson is one of SF's most interesting voices, mixing realism with a healthy optimism with real scientific vigour with an interest in macroeconomics. His work veers from the large scale to the intimate: his Mars Trilogy remains the final word on the colonisation of the Red Planet, whilst Galileo's Dream, Shaman and the Science in the Capital trilogy have been more down-to-earth works. Generation ship drama Aurora and his state-of-the-Solar-System epic 2312 have shown a general trajectory back to large scale events, as will his next novel (in which China colonises the moon). New York 2140 takes a different tack, depicting a vast, complex and changed world through the prism of the (now very soggy) Big Apple. There's some interest to be found from parsing the ultra-cynical, profit-driven city through the eyes of Robinson, a Californian utopian scientist through and through.

So this is a book which examines the future of human society through the greatest city humanity has ever built (and maybe ever will build), but the book zooms in even further than that, concentrating on the inhabitants of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building on Madison Square (the one with the impressive giant clock), now, like so many other buildings, an island rising from the waters. The main characters include NYPD office Gwen, a lawyer named Charlotte, a hedge fund manager, two homeless kids, the building's supervisor Vlade (whose tasks involve making sure the building doesn't sink or collapse from waterlogged foundations) and a cloud video star named Amelia who has her own web channel covering her attempts to save endangered species using an airship. The plot initially appears rather diffuse, with the kidnapping of two computer programmers from the building providing a dramatic spine but the book moving away from this for lengthy tangents on matters material, political and financial, but eventually the sprawling plot threads come together for a fascinating conclusion.

Robinson is that rarest of beasts, a hard SF author who can actually write. His prose is vivid, flows well and changes tonally between narrators (hedge fund manager Frank gets his chapters written in first person, unlike everyone else, just because Robinson likes mixing things up a bit). New York 2140 is simply a tremendous pleasure to read from start to finish for this reason. Robinson is also a bit on the light-hearted side of things here. That's not to say there isn't serious drama and incident (there is, especially when a tropical storm hits the city), but Robinson mitigates this with a sense of humour and an genuine outsider's appreciation for the city.

Really, New York 2140 is a love letter to a city that you'd think doesn't need any more, but works anyway. The city is peppered with anecdotes from the city's history, most of them true. It's startling to learn that Met North (the building adjacent to the Met Life Insurance Building) was supposed to be a supermassive skyscraper taller than the Empire State Building but was abandoned after 30 floors for financial reasons, or that in 1903 an elephant made a break for freedom from Coney Island and swam three miles across the Narrows to Staten Island before being recaptured. Robinson's list of sources and stories will have readers hitting the internet to check out the awesome 18th Century British topographical surveys of the mostly-unsettled Manhattan Island, or confirm that Manhattan is actually sloped with the southern part of the island much lower than the northern. Most insane is the story that a British warship carrying gold to pay its troops, HMS Hussar, sank in New York Harbour and was never recovered. The money on board would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars today, but since the Bronx has been extended over the site of the wreck it can't be recovered. Implausibly, but entertainingly, this becomes a major plot point in the novel.

The book is mostly successful but occasionally flounders: the novel is a little too consumed with economic history and a few jokes wear thin ("sunk costs" is a term that takes on a new meaning), but these points remain minor.

New York 2140 (****½) is more than a well-written profile of the city. As the book continues it gains drama and urgency and ends on a note which moves the story far beyond New York's borders to take in the entire world. It's a little bit too neat and maybe too optimistic, but the book's (unnamed) narrator acknowledges this and points out that the great social transformation which results from the book's events may be temporary. But overall New York 2140 is Robinson at his best: brimming with verve and humour and hope, taking all the knocks that politics and economics and cold science can throw at us and showing that humans can always adapt, change and prosper. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Storyline of The Solo Han Solo movie revealed

The Solo Han Solo Movie (which should really be its title) now has a storyline. Well, you'd hope it already had one given they're shooting it now, but the story has now been made public.


The film will span six years in the life of everyone's favourite smuggler, starting with him on Corellia as a 18-year-old and ending eight years later with him in possession of the Millennium Falcon, having met Lando and Chewbacca along the way. This is an interesting new turn for the Star Wars movies, which have typically been tight, focused affairs. This new, multi-year epic is a new approach.

The Solo Han Solo Movie is currently scheduled for release in May 2018. It is directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street) and written by Jake Kasdan and his father Lawrence (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark). Alden Ehreneich stars as Han Solo, with Donald Glover as Lando, Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca, Woody Harrelson as Beckett (Han's mentor) and Emilia Clarke, Michael K. Williams and Thandie Newton is as-yet-unnamed roles.

Chris Wooding announces major new fantasy trilogy

Chris Wooding, the author of the Tales of the Ketty Jay and Braided Path series (amongst many others, like the superb The Fade), has confirmed that his new fantasy trilogy will be published by Gollancz. The series starts with The Ember Blade, which will be published in February 2018.


Wooding has been working on this novel for over two years and seeks to meld the complexity and nuance of modern fantasy with the adventure of the classic late 20th Century genre. The blurb is as follows:
A land under occupation. A legendary sword. A young man’s journey to find his destiny.Aren has lived by the rules all his life. He’s never questioned it; that’s just the way things are. But then his father is executed for treason, and he and his best friend Cade are thrown into a prison mine, doomed to work until they drop. Unless they can somehow break free . . . 
But what lies beyond the prison walls is more terrifying still. Rescued by a man who hates him yet is oath-bound to protect him, pursued by inhuman forces, Aren slowly accepts that everything he knew about his world was a lie. The rules are not there to protect him, or his people, but to enslave them. A revolution is brewing, and Aren is being drawn into it, whether he likes it or not. 
The key to the revolution is the Ember Blade. The sword of kings, the Excalibur of his people. Only with the Ember Blade in hand can their people be inspired to rise up . . . but it’s locked in an impenetrable vault in the most heavily guarded fortress in the land. All they have to do now is steal it. . .

On a Reddit AMA a couple of months back, he described it thusly:

The new book is my first attempt at doing, er, I suppose you'd call it 'traditional' fantasy. I grew up on ShannaraLOTRDragonlance and that kind of thing; they were the books that got me into fantasy. And I realised in almost 20 years of writing I'd never actually tried a fantasy story in that kind of world: the kind of pseudo-European environment that most readers identify as fantasy. My big series were always set in weird environments: in Broken Sky everyone had a 'superpower' through their spirit-stones; The Braided Path was Oriental flintlock fantasy shading into science fiction; Ketty Jay was dieselpunk fantasy. This new one, I'm not throwing out all the tropes at the start as I usually do. I want this one to feel like a fantasy, like the books I loved when I was a kid. And then I'm going to tell a story working within that format, and try to make it all fresh and new, using all the ensemble casting and characterisation skillz I honed during the Ketty Jay books. It's not going to be like the fantasy of the 80s and 90s, with its black and white morality and clear-cut heroes and villains; nor is it going to be grimdark. It's a pretty lo-magic setting. Beyond that, all I can tell you is that I'm having a total blast writing it. There's a certain freedom in being able to employ the assumptions and traditions of fantasy fiction and concentrate on story and character, instead of starting everything from scratch.
Wooding is currently working on the sequel. Given the very high quality of Wooding's previous novels, this immediately joins my "most wanted" queue.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Movie poster for THE DARK TOWER revealed

Columbia Pictures has released the first poster for The Dark Tower, its upcoming movie adaptation of Stephen King's eight-volume novel series of the same name. The film stars Idris Elba as Roland Deschain, the Gunslinger, and Matthew McConaughey as Walter Padick, the Man in Black (in this version of the story, anyway). The film is flippable, focusing on Roland from one angle and on the Man in Black from the other.


The film is both an adaptation of, and sequel to, King's books* (see below, but SPOILERS). The plan is for this to be a multi-film project, with the first film drawing on elements from the first three novels in the book series. There will also be a TV series exploring Roland's backstory as revealed in the fourth novel, with Elba appearing in framing sequences for the flashbacks and a younger actor playing the teenage Roland.

The film is directed by Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) and also stars Tom Taylor, Katheryn Winnick and Jackie Earle Haley. It will be released on 28 July. The TV series will air in 2018.


SPOILERS AFTER THE JUMP

A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE tabletop wargame announced

Dark Sword Miniatures, who have been producing high-quality miniatures based on George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels for a decade, are now working on a tabletop wargame with CMON Games.


The new game will initially pitch Houses Stark and Lannister against one another. Later expansions will add the other houses and factions. The game will feature military units but also "heroes" (characters from the novels) who will add bonuses and special abilities to their armies.

This is the second ASoIaF miniatures game. The first was Battles of Westeros, based on the BattleLore rules and released by Fantasy Flight Games. Despite FFG's high profile and their proven success with the ASoIaF board game and collectable card game, Battles of Westeros never really took off, was fairly low-key and is no longer available. Dark Sword and CMON are promising much greater support for their new game.


There will be a Kickstarter campaign later this year for the game and a full release is expected in Spring 2018.

Star Trek: Enterprise - Season 3

Earth has been attacked by an alien superweapon. Florida and the Caribbean have been left in flames and over seven million people are dead. The alien attackers are traced to a mysterious region of space known as the Delphic Expanse and an alien race known as the Xindi, so Starfleet sends the NX-01 Enterprise to the region to investigate further and stop the Xindi before they can launch a second attack.


According to conventional wisdom, Star Trek: Enterprise gets a lot better with its third season. The show's best writer, Manny Coto, was promoted to producer and given more creative freedom. The entire season also has a strong, ongoing story arc. It's still not full-on serialisation - many episodes are still stand-alone, just with more frequent mentions of the ongoing storyline - but it's closer than Trek has gotten before across a whole year. There's also more attention paid to character growth, such as T'Pol developing an addiction to a chemical and then going through withdrawal, leaving her permanently emotionally damaged, whilst the human crewmembers initially hunger for revenge against the Xindi before learning more about them and how they've been manipulated by another alien race.

It is certainly true that Enterprise's third season is more interesting than the first two. There is more of a sense of tension and drama and the show feels more experimental. Long-term Trek producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, criticised by many fans for presiding over the long-term decline of the franchise, seem to have backed off and given Coto more freedom to innovate. The producers cleverly realised that their storyline, although it had legs, was still insufficient to fill 25 episodes, so were still able to bring in side-stories to expand the texture of the new setting of the Expanse. Although some of these episodes are undeniably filler (Extinction and Rajin are groan-inducingly boring), there seems to be a far higher hit rate than in previous seasons.

The season also gives us Enterprise's first truly classic episode. Twilight riffs on previous episode ideas but also takes a strong influence from the movie Memento, with Archer affected by a neurological problem which prevents him from forming long-term memories. The episode unfolds as an alternate view of what happens if the Enterprise's mission fails and, although we know it won't, the episode is well-written and directed enough that it doesn't matter too much.

Other strong episodes include Proving Ground (even if the arrival of Andorian occasional semi-ally Shran is a little implausible), Strategem and Doctor's Orders (an excellent showcase for John Billingsley's acting). The season also ends with a strong arc starting with Azati Prime, where Enterprise takes incredibly heavy damage and is left crippled for the rest of the season. The crew have to find a way of destroying the Xindi weapon without having their normal resources to call upon, so have to resort to a diplomatic solution. In a post-9/11 world and with the far darker Battlestar Galactica reboot hitting screens at the same time, Enterprise takes a very different approach is still very true to the ethos of Star Trek, and does so reasonably well. The season-ending cliffhanger is less than compelling, however.

The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise (****) is indeed better than the first two and the finest season of Star Trek since the end of Deep Space Nine. It's not perfect and occasionally resorts to tiresome Star Trek standbys, but it entertains and successfully finds a solution to the season-long arc that channels Star Trek at its finest. The season is available now on Blu-Ray (UK, USA) and on Netflix in the UK and Ireland.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Iron Fist: Season 1

Fifteen years ago a plane crashed in the Himalayas. The only survivor, 10-year-old Danny Rand, was found by monks from the otherworldly stronghold of K'un-lun. Trained in their ways of combat, meditation and mysticism, Rand became the Iron Fist, a warrior beyond compare, destined to protect K'un-lun from their mortal enemies, the Hand. Now he has chosen to return home to New York City, to find his father's company is making money from unethical sources. With the city threatened by the Hand, Rand steps up to save the world and his parents' legacy.


Iron Fist is the fourth collaboration between Netflix and Marvel, following on from Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. It's also the final set-up series before the whole gang gets together for an event mini-series, The Defenders, which will air later this year.

Netflix have batted high so far in this collaboration: the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones were excellent, the second season of Daredevil was less accomplished but still watchable and the first season of Luke Cage opened well but fell apart later on as it ran out of plot and interesting characters long before the season ended, but those early episodes were still great. All of these shows have been stylish and well-written with excellent action sequences, but have struggled at times with structure and pacing. Iron Fist is, contrary to some early reviews, not the weakest Netflix/Marvel collaboration (I'd say that goes, by a whisker, to Luke Cage, despite the stronger main character) but it is the most maddeningly inconsistent.

An early weakness is that the show tries to get us interested in the doings of Rand Enterprises and then doesn't do that (exactly what the company does and makes is left unclear as well). Danny Rand (Finn Jones from Game of Thrones) returns home to find everyone thinks he is dead and struggles to convince everyone he is who he says he is, particularly the people now in charge of the company, Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey) and his sister Joy (Jessica Stroup). Aided by superstar lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss, returning from Jessica Jones), Danny eventually gets recognised and his foot back in the door. But he then promptly loses interest in the company for most of the rest of the series and the corporate dealings of the firm are deeply dull, not helped by Tom Pelphrey's uninspired performance in a mediocre role. More interesting is David Wenham - Faramir from the Lord of the Rings movies - as the Meachum patriarch, Harold, who has faked his own death and is overseeing things secretly from afar for initially baffling reasons. Wenham is charismatic, unpredictable and ambiguous, but goes from dominating episodes to barely showing up. In addition, having a second character who everyone thought was dead feels redundant and repetitive.

The corporate storyline never flies, but far more successful is the character arc of Colleen Wing, played with energetic gusto and charisma by Jessica Henwick (late of both Star Wars and Game of Thrones). Colleen is a martial arts instructor who faces having to close down her dojo due to financial problems before getting caught up in Rand's story. Colleen's storyline is very well-handled to the point where you start wishing she was the protagonist rather than Danny. Finn Jones does okay with the material he is given, but his character is less interesting, more rooted in standard tropes and the show constantly finds excuses why he can't use his superpower, which gets dull quickly.


I was bracing myself for the later confrontations with the Hand, since the Hand were absolutely terrible on Daredevil. Fortunately, the traditional Hand we are familiar with are soon out of the action and a different faction within the organisation emerges, one which contains actual characters with something approaching credible motivations. At first this nicely makes the organisation more morally murky and interesting, but eventually they return to base villainy.

Rosario Dawson also returns as Claire Temple from the other Netflix shows and she gets a lot more to do here, having been trained by Colleen in the ways of combat, so she actually gets mixed up in the action and feels more like a character contributing to the narrative than a random and incongruous cameo (as she was on Jessica Jones). The only thing that is a bit weird is that Claire does mention several times that she's been hanging around with other superheroes but Danny and Colleen are completely uninterested and no-one suggests recruiting these other guys to help them out against the Hand.

Iron Fist avoids the problem of Luke Cage and Daredevil S2, which both started off strongly and then fell of a cliff in quality and never recovered, by actually starting off a lot weaker and getting better as it goes along (particularly Colleen's story, which takes an unexpected turn which adds greater depth to the character). But there are problems which are constant: the show's moral message is murky and bizarre (at one point saying it's bad to kill but okay if someone else kills the person instead, as it gets you off the hook), dialogue can be thunderously clunky and the Hand go from being an omnipotent villain who is everywhere to being easily-defeatable goons. Finn Jones also gives the most pedestrian performance of the four Netflix leads (five counting the upcoming Punisher series).

Most damaging for an action show about a martial arts character, the action scenes are subpar. Some scenes use unconvincing stunt doubles and some - shockingly - resort to CGI blurring the stunt doubles' faces when they are too obviously not the right person. Given the absolutely brilliant action scenes achieved in Daredevil (that hallway fight in Season 1 remains the highwater mark for physical combat scenes in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to date), Iron Fist's are startlingly bad, not helped by Jones's rather obvious lack of martial arts skill. Henwick's scenes are far more brutal and convincing and her two cage match fights are the most intense and believable action scenes in the series.

In the final analysis, Iron Fist (***) is nowhere near as bad as the early reviews make out but is still far from ideal. It's mostly okay, but never rises above the watchable. It doesn't outstay its welcome to the extent that Luke Cage and Daredevil's second year did, mainly because it knows when to introduce new elements and characters to explore to keep the story wheel turning more effectively. But it does suffer from some weak opening episodes, an uninteresting corporate subplot and some very underwhelming action scenes. It's also hard to shake off the feeling that the series is about the wrong character. Hopefully Netflix considers adding a Colleen Wing (either solo or teamed up with her traditional comics sparring partner, Misty Knight from Luke Cage) show to the roster at some point in the future.

Friday, 17 March 2017

THE EXPANSE renewed for a third season

The Expanse has been renewed for a third season by SyFy.


The news came after an exceptional critical response for the second season of the show, currently airing in the United States, and after the show was picked up for international distribution by Netflix, widely increasing its worldwide profile.

The first two seasons adapted the first two books in the series, Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War. The third season will presumably cover any elements left over from Caliban's War and move into the events of the third book in the series, Abaddon's Gate.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

First thoughts: STAR WARS REBELLION

When I was a kid I enjoyed playing board games. There was the Pac-Man board game and Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs and Escape from Atlantis, amongst many others. When I got a bit older there was the epic Hero Quest and Space Crusade and Axis and Allies. As a teenager I stopped playing them: the UK board game market dried up and I moved on to roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, Deadlands and Star Wars.


But now board games are back, and in a big way. For the last few years there's been an explosion in the market. It's growing at an exponential rate and very few months pass without another game smashing Kickstarter targets or getting a few more expansions. Some of the better games of this latest explosion include Descent, Flash Point and of course the epic Pandemic and its recent Legacy reiteration. Epic fantasy is also getting in on the act, with Games Workshop now in its sixteenth year of its Lord of the Rings tabletop wargame and Fantasy Flight's A Song of Ice and Fire board game being one of the best-regarded in the business (and CMON Games are looking to introduce a tabletop wargame based on the books soon).

I recently picked up my first board game in over a decade. Star Wars: Rebellion shares a name with the 1998 strategy video game of the same name (released as Supremacy in the UK) and has a broadly similar set-up. The Rebel Alliance is trying to foment a galaxy-wide uprising against the Empire and needs both time and allies to achieve that. The Empire is is trying to crush the Rebellion before it can really get going by destroying its hidden base. The Empire has overwhelming superiority of strength but the Rebellion is more mobile and capable of sabotaging the Empire's war machine.

The game is played on an enormous board featuring thirty-one star systems from the Star Wars universe: Coruscant, Corellia, Ord Mantell, Dagobah, Yavin, Hoth, Tatooine and more are present and correct. One of these planets is home to the Rebel Base, but the Imperial player doesn't know where it is. Using probe droids and manually searching each planet, the Empire has to eliminate the possibilities until they find the base and destroy it. The Rebels can slow down the Empire's advance by undertaking sabotage missions (essential if you don't want a wall of Star Destroyers advancing across the map by the fifth turn) and also engaging in misinformation, getting the Empire to send troops to the wrong planet or diverting their forces by mounting a military attack elsewhere.

The game features an impressive array of counters, dice, cards (so many cards) and miniatures. There are tiny stormtroopers and Rebel troopers, snowspeeders, AT-ATs, AT-STs, TIE fighter squadrons, X-wings, Y-wings, Corellian Corvettes, Star Destroyers, Super Star Destroyers, Mon Calamari Star Cruisers and even three Death Stars (the Empire's ability to have multiple Death Stars flying around is the most notable callback to Supremacy). The miniatures are small but being able to assemble a fleet of six Star Destroyers led by Darth Vader's Super Star Destroyer and send it to crush a Rebel planet is still an awesome feeling.


Key to the game are characters. Each side has a plethora of characters to send on missions. The Rebels can call upon Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Lando, Chewbacca, Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar (amongst others) whilst the Empire can call on Darth Vader, the Emperor, Grand Moff Tarkin, Admiral Piette, General Veers, as well as various other characters. You can assign characters to missions but also use unassigned characters to disrupt the missions of other characters. The Empire also has the ability to try to capture Rebel leaders and interrogate them, whilst the Rebels then have the ability to rescue them. You also use characters to take command of fleets and guide them from system to system, but they can't both command a fleet and disrupt enemy operations, leading to interesting strategic missions. If the Empire has a massive fleet waiting to move on a Rebel system, the Rebels can send multiple agents to commit sabotage or operations in that system. The Empire can choose to disrupt those operations with their leaders in that system, but won't then be able to move their fleet. If they choose not to disrupt those operations, the Rebels might win significant advantages.

The result is an intricate game based on outright military action, covert operations and diplomatic games of bluff and double-bluff, all drenched in Star Wars flavour. The result is a game that does what modern games do best: generate stories from your actions, stories that shift and change each time.

Rebellion does have several issues, although these may be features to some players rather than bugs. It's a Fantasy Flight game, so that means that the rules are not always tremendously clear. The "quick start" manual omits about half the game rules whilst the main rulebook is not tremendously detailed. Expect to spend a lot of time studying errata and forum posts to explain more bizarre rulings. There's also the fact that the game is not a quick play. In our first game, it took four hours to run through about five turns (out of a possible fourteen). That was our first time and a lot of that was taken up going through the rules, but looking at board game sites, games lasting six hours or more are not uncommon (although games in three or four are certainly quite achievable as well).

Rebellion is also strictly a two-player game. There is a team option, with two players on each team, bu it's pretty thin stuff. Those who want a grand space strategy game with multiple players is directed to Fantasy Flight's Forbidden Stars (if you can find it before the final copies are sold), which scratches some of the same itch. Of course, if you regularly have entire weekends freed to dedicate to one game, there's always Twilight Imperium (cue readers screaming and running for the hills).

I'm still yet to complete a full game, but so far Rebellion is a fine and engaging strategy boardgame that makes excellent use of the Star Wars mythos.

PHOENIX POINT teaser trailer and new staff announcements

Julian Gollop, the creator of the original X-COM series of games (and an unofficial advisor on the modern XCOM reboots), is currently hard at work on Phoenix Point, a game that can be best described as "XCOM meets Lovecraft". He's now released the briefest of teaser trailers for the game:


The trailer suggests not much of the game exists, but in fact there was a playable build being shown off last summer and the game has an early-to-mid 2018 release date. I'm guessing this is the start of a more thorough marketing and release schedule to raise awareness of the game ahead of its launch in a year or so.

Gollop has also confirmed that composer John Broomhall is working on the new game. Broomhall previously wrote the music for the first three X-COM games (UFO Defence, Terror from the Deep and Apocalypse) and has since worked on the Forza and Railroad Tycoon franchises.


The game has also added Jonas Kyratzes as a writer. Kyratzes is a noted video game commentator, designer and writer, best-known for his work on cult hit The Talos Principle, as well as his own indie Lands of Dream series.

Phoenix Point is set in the near future when the world has been consumed by a strange mist (released from the Siberian permafrost) that has transformed vast numbers of people into monsters. The game features a detailed strategic layer in which players take control of a band of survivors and have to make alliances with other factions, recruiting soldiers and scientists whilst coordinating a defence against the mist and finding a way of dispersing it. The game also features turn-based combat against the monsters with detailed weapons customisation. Remarkably, as well as the game featuring procedural levels it will also feature procedural monsters, creating new mutant types out of hundreds of different body parts.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Starz release full trailer for AMERICAN GODS

Starz have released a full trailer for the first season of American Gods, based on Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel of the same name.


The eight-part series debuts on Starz on 30 April. The first season will cover approximately one-third of the novel, with the rest (and possible adaptations of the novel Anansi Boys and the short stories "Monarch of the Glen" and "Black Dog", as well as the unwritten American Gods II) to follow in succeeding seasons.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Producers confirm only six episodes for final season of GAME OF THRONES

Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have confirmed that the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones will only have six episodes.


The seventh season debuts on 16 July in the US on HBO and will consist of seven episodes. Weiss and Benioff said last year that they had planned to finish the series in just thirteen more episodes after the explosive finale to Season 6. HBO had refused to confirm that, hoping that the producers could be talked into making more episodes. Clearly that effort has failed.

The final two seasons have the same budget as the sixth ($100 million), bringing the per-episode budget of the series up to $14,280,000. In Season 8 this will increase to $16,660,000 per episode (a massive five times the budget of an episode of The Walking Dead, for comparison). Game of Thrones is, easily, the most expensive ongoing TV show in television history.

The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones will begin production towards the end of this year and will air in summer 2018. HBO are in early discussions with George R.R. Martin about making a possible spin-off series to replace it, but have not announced any firm plans. Such a series will not involve Benioff or Weiss, who have a movie development deal with Fox Studios.

Taboo: Season 1

London, 1814. Horace Delaney, a merchant and landowner, has died. His daughter Zilpha and her grasping, ambitious husband Thorne stand to inherit everything. But, to Thorne's dismay, Zilpha's older half-brother James has returned from a decade in Africa (where he was presumed dead) to take on the inheritance. Part of this inheritance is land on Vancouver Island, of great importance to both the British Empire, the United States and the burgeoning Pacific trade with China. The East India Company is hungry to get its hands on that land, but finds that James has his own plans and he will not be moved from them.


Taboo is a dark and grim historical drama series conceived by actor Tom Hardy almost a decade ago. It's been a passion project for the actor, as he convinced his father Chips and his Peaky Blinders collaborator Steven Knight to write it and finally became famous enough to get it made as a co-production between the BBC and the American FX cable channel.

Taboo tries - and tries very hard - to be a dark and serious drama series. The lighting filters are turned down to the extent that some scenes may as well be in black and white, and characters utter, or mumble indistinctly, dark and portentous dialogue at the drop of a hat. Speaking of which, Tom Hardy struts around the series wearing an epic and impressive hat. The hat does a lot of the heavy lifting of characterisation that the writers don't bring to the party: James Delaney is a bit of a weirdo who fancies his sister and likes to talk in Native Americanese and keeps getting decent people killed, but we side with him regardless because he rocks that hat. The hat is all.

The series meanders and roams backwards and forwards. The central plot is that James Delaney owns some land and the East India Company wants to buy it and he doesn't want to sell it, so the East India Company embarks on plans of varying degrees of lunacy to try to get Delaney to sell it, or killed so it passes to his more flexible sister and brother-in-law. The East India Company as an Evil Organisation is well-established in fiction (in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy it even stood in as a sort of Galactic Empire of the seas) and here this mostly ahistorical image is sold by its boss being played by the always-utterly-magnificent Jonathan Pryce. Pryce's villainous monologues are utterly magnificent, improved by his splendidly belligerent use of English swearing.

Tacked on to this central storyline is a lot of other stuff. James and his sister have a weird and unhealthy relationship, his late father was remarried to a much younger woman who is recruited to dispute the inheritance but instead sides with James after he charms her with the hat, and James also has an interest in international politics, developing a curious relationship with an American intelligence agent. There's also a superstar celebrity chemist, played with excellent charisma and wit by Tom Hollander, and a bunch of local honourable prostitutes with hearts of gold (kind of) whom James recruits for various whimsical reasons. There's also the cross-dressing East India Company operative whom James recruits after he falls in love with him (or the hat), and the young wharf rat who attaches herself to James because she believes that - in the utter absence of any evidence - that he's really a good man and not the psychopath he first appears to be (and never really moves away from: in Taboo character development is optional). Oh, and Mark Gatiss shows up as the sleazily corrupt Prince Regent who steals every scene he is in.

Taboo certainly has fantastic production values. British shows set in the 19th Century are commonplace, but usually resort to clever camera angles and digitally painting out CCTV cameras to pretend it's a period piece. Taboo goes beserk with CGI establishing shots of the entire city of London, some terrific visuals of the Thames that eliminate all of the modern buildings and warps things back to two hundred years ago and also some very subtle manipulation of background images to sell the setting and imagery. Sometimes the CG is too obviously fake - some of the shots from bridges are obviously greenscreen - but mostly this extra money and CG whizz is used to sell the setting. There's also some great costume work and a great final battle sequence involving explosions, gunfire and sword fights that is excellently choreographed.


The main problem with Taboo will also be, for some, its main selling point. This is a series that aspires to be Dark. The themes are dark, the ideas are dark and the characters are dark. But there is a very fine line between things being dark and things getting a bit silly. Taboo not only crosses that line, it smashes through it with a sixteen-wheel truck (complete with Tom Hardy strapped to the top playing flamethrower guitar, probably). In fact, Taboo may have created an entirely new subgenre: grimcamp.

It's really not possible to take Taboo seriously as a real piece of drama: it is far too po-faced, utterly implausible and nonsensical for that. But treat it as Tom Hardy trolling the entire world and as a slice of high hokum, and it springs to life. You can play the Taboo drinking games (one shot each time Zilpha has a naughty dream about James, another each time James appears to have been thwarted before it's all revealed to be part of a Xanatos Gambit, another each time Jonathan Pryce drops an F-bomb), go online to extol the virtues of Tom Hardy's hat (which deserves its own place in the credits) and ponder real estate values of land on Vancouver Island and why the USA gives the British landowner rights any credence at all.

This is also the Tom Hardiest thing that Tom Hardy has ever done. He struts into scenes with his big black coat and his epic hat and mumbles incoherently about his Dark Doings in Africa and/or America before having a vision of his Native American mother and then leaving. You'll have no idea about what he's doing or what's just happened, but he sells it so well that you don't really care. James Delaney is incredibly po-faced but you can tell that Hardy is having the time of his life. With that hat.

Amongst the supporting cast and crew - most of whom have been poached from Game of Thrones, Pirates of the Caribbean and/or Peaky Blinders, which is appropriate as the series feels like a fanfic mashup of all three - Tom Hollander and Jonathan Pryce do outstanding work, Jessie Buckley is excellent (and I suspect a star in the making) and Mark Gatiss does scene-stealing debauchery as only he can. Some of the cast is less successful: Oona Chaplin clearly does not have a clue what the hell is going on and sleepwalks through half her scenes, whilst Jefferson Hall (also ex-Game of Thrones) plays her arsey husband without much motivation.

Take the first season of Taboo (***½) seriously as a piece of drama and art, and you will be massively disappointed. Accepted it as a piece of pulpy cheese presented to you by Tom Hardy wearing a fun hat, and it becomes altogether more enjoyable. Implausibly, the series will return next year for a second season, apparently set in the Azores. Whether Tom Hardy's hat will also return is as yet unclear.

Friday, 10 March 2017

20 Years of Slaying: The Story of Buffy

In 1991 Joss Whedon was a 27-year-old scriptwriter, regularly writing for the American sitcoms Roseanne and Parenthood. He’d gained some attention for his work, enough to get 20th Century Fox to take a look at a film script he’d been tooling around with for a while.

The script had developed from an image Whedon had been struck by whilst watching yet another clichéd horror movie about a monster that kills girls. In Whedon's idea a monster stalks a young teenage girl into a dark alley, only for the girl to turn around and kill the monster. This idea went through several permutations – one called “Rhonda the Immortal Waitress” gaining some traction before Whedon mercifully ditched it – before it finally hit the page. Whedon sold his script, now immortally called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in the autumn of 1991 to Sandollar, Dolly Parton’s development studio.


The film was released on 31 July 1992 with a reasonably good cast. Young up-and-comers Kristy Swanson and Luke Perry starred and old hands Rutger Hauer and Donald Sutherland provided strong support. The film was a very modest success, taking home $13 million from an $8 million budget, and a minor cult hit on home video. Joss Whedon was less than impressed, however: his original script had garnered a lot of good notices in the trade but the rewrites for the film had removed a lot of the darker edges, metaphors and themes, reducing the film to a broad comedy. Whedon had his first (but not last) taste of what it was to be “Hollywoodised”.

Whedon then spent several years working in development hell in Hollywood, mainly as a script doctor and re-writer. It was his work on the hit movies Twister, Speed and especially Toy Story which raised his profile and saw him being eagerly sought out for higher-profile work, including a draft of the in-development fourth Alien movie (which did not end so well). Sandollar decided to come back to Whedon and suggest re-tooling the Buffy character in a new format, for television, and this time Whedon would have complete creative control and final say over the result.

Whedon, surprisingly, agreed. In the mid-1990s it was unusual for someone with a burgeoning career in Hollywood to switch from film to television. But Whedon had become frustrated with the constant rewrites in film and his words being frequently deleted and replaced with someone else's material. In television Whedon realised he could have the final say, the final cut and grow his skills, branching out as a director and producer as well as a writer.

Nicholas Brendon, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Riff Regan as Xander, Buffy and Willow in the unaired Buffy pilot.

Sandollar and Whedon produced a 25-minute non-broadcast pilot. Whedon scored several major casting coups, recruiting Sarah Michelle Gellar - fresh off a popular run on the soap opera All My Children - in the title role of Buffy and Charisma Carpenter from the ill-fated Malibu Shores as her sometimes-nemesis Cordelia. Anthony Stewart Head, famous in both the UK and USA for his long-running stint on a popular series of coffee adverts (Nescafe in the UK, Taster’s Choice in the US), was cast as Rupert Giles, Buffy’s mentor. Relative newcomer Nicholas Brendon was cast as Xander. Mercedes McNab, Danny Strong and Julie Benz was cast in minor, almost background, roles, but all three would not only return for the series proper but go on to become major characters in later years.
Also debuting in the pilot, after some very minor background roles, was David Boreanaz. Boreanaz’s neighbour had penned him as brooding vampire-type and pointed this out to Marti Noxon, a producer on the pilot, who quickly snapped him up.

Completing the cast on the pilot was Riff Regan, who was tapped to play the role of the nerdy Willow Rosenberg. For once Whedon’s casting-fu failed him and Regan turned out to be too inexperienced, fluffing her lines and suffering from a serious case of the nerves.

Still, the pilot did its job. Fox agreed to produce the show and the WB were impressed enough to broadcast it. But only after changes were made and another show was cancelled early to make room for it.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer entered production in the summer of 1996. It was initially picked up as a 12-episode mid-season replacement, allowing Whedon to write quite a tight story arc, pitching Buffy into battle against the villainous Master. Surprisingly, almost the entire cast survived from the pilot to the show. The only major change was the character of Willow, with Riff Regan ejected in favour of Alyson Hannigan. Hannigan’s career was already in the ascendant, following her role on the movie My Stepmother is an Alien (with future Buffy co-star Seth Green) and a steady series of guest star gigs on shows such as Roseanne, Touched by an Angel and Picket Fences.

With the classic cast established, Buffy the Vampire Slayer finally debuted on television on 10 March 1997.

Joss Whedon directing David Boreanaz and Sarah Michelle Gellar.

The Premise
16-year-old Buffy Summers discovers she is “The Slayer”, a chosen one who must stand against the darkness, the demons and especially the vampires that threaten the world by night. She is aided and advised in her mission by the Watchers Council, learned men and women who have accumulated vast amounts of knowledge about the supernatural. Fleeing her destiny, Buffy relocates to Sunnydale, California in the hope of pursuing a normal life at a new school. However, she is soon found by the Watchers who send Rupert Giles to act as her advisor. To her horror, Buffy learns that Sunnydale is built on top of a Hellmouth, a “thin” point between this world and the hell dimensions that lie beyond, and evil is drawn to the town like moths to a flame. Reluctantly, Buffy embraces her new role.

The High School Horror Story
The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer picked up strong reviews almost from the off (although in retrospect the show took most of the first year to find its feet). The cast was given a lot of credit, but the writing was also given a lot of attention for its sharp one-liners and its clever use of the horror elements as metaphors for the often-uncomfortable process of going through high school and growing up. Potential clichés, such as Buffy’s ironic romantic relationship with vampire Angel, were treated with greater seriousness and respect than was first expected. There were also moments of genuine horror, such as Buffy inadvertently sticking her hands in someone’s detached brain and a little boy being turned into a vampire by the evil Master, but also comedy, such as a sentient puppet that is presumed to be evil, but just turns out to be a bit of a pervert.

The show was also praised for its tight serialisation. Whedon wanted each episode to stand alone with its main plot (using the device of the “Hellmouth” to explain why evil creatures were showing up in the fictional town of Sunnydale every week) but to develop ongoing storylines with its subplots, which occasionally moved to the fore (most notably in the episode Angel, which reveals the backstory of David Boreanaz’s tortured vampire character). In the Season 1 finale, Buffy kills the Master but only at the cost of her own life before she is resuscitated. Whedon’s use of serialisation was influenced by his childhood in the UK, watching the likes of Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, but it was also seemingly inspired by the space opera show Babylon 5: Whedon smuggled several references to that show into Buffy, with Xander revealed as a major fan. J. Michael Straczynski, the writer-producer of Babylon 5 (and more recently Sense8 on Netflix), gave Buffy the thumbs-up as one of his own favourite shows.

The first season was left open-ended, although with enough closure so fans wouldn’t suffer too much if it was cancelled. However, the combination of reasonable ratings, critical acclaim and its personable and attractive young cast (who quickly pushed the stars of The X-Files off the front covers of the magazines they’d been dominating for two years) meant it was a no-brainer for the WB to commission a second series, this time a full-season run of 22 episodes.

Juliet Landau and James Marsters as Drusilla and Spike.

Hitting Buffy Where She Lived
The second season of Buffy opens in a similar vein to the first, until just three episodes in when punk-loving British vampire Spike (riffing on Sid Vicious) arrives in town with his crazy-whimsical girlfriend Drusilla. Brutally dispatching the child-vampire known as the Anointed One and debuting in an episode directly based in the movie Die Hard, it was one hell of an entrance and sparked the beginning of a creative burst for the series that would last, arguably, until the end of the third season. It was during this period that Seth Green joined the show as the laconic werewolf Oz. Whedon established a paradigm pitching Spike and Drusilla against Buffy and her friends, the “Scooby Gang”. But Whedon knew it would be impossible to keep that up for a whole year and, halfway through the season, threw things for a loop.

In the episodes Surprise and Innocence, Buffy and Angel finally consummate their relationship…unaware that this will shatter the magic that restored Angel’s human soul to him, condemning him to an eternity of guilt and suffering. This resulted in Angel transforming into his evil, murderous alter ego Angelus. Cutting a bloody swathe through the supporting cast, this was a shocking move and one that Whedon did not hold back on. Events built through the superb latter half of the season until Buffy is forced to hurl Angelus through a dimensional portal into a hell dimension…just at the very second his soul is restored.

Joss Whedon later noted that this sequence of events was impossible to beat. Turning Angel against Buffy in a savage act of betrayal hit her where she lived.

Eliza Dushku joined the cast in Season 3 as rogue Slayer Faith.

Two Slayers, a Lot of Trouble
The third season saw Angel returned to Earth by means unknown, with Buffy’s friends angry with his return, albeit with his soul and conscience restored. However, events quickly overtake them: Sunnydale is attacked by a suave and funky new vampire leader, Mr. Trick, supported by a mysterious backer.

The early one-two punch of Homecoming and Band Candy gave the show two of its best episodes of all time, and later on this was enhanced by episodes such as The Wish (which introduced recurring character Anya, played by Emma Caulfield), The Zeppo and Doppelgangland, along with the controversial Earshot, which featured a planned shooting at Sunnydale High. The episode was delayed following the shooting at Columbine High School shortly before the originally-planned airdate.

The season’s core conceit was that when Buffy had briefly died in the Season 1 finale, a new Slayer had been called. This Slayer, Kendra, had been killed in Season 2. Now a new Slayer had arisen to replace her. Faith, played by Eliza Dushku, was far more reckless than the more disciplined Buffy and far more willing to put her life in danger. Her own Watcher, Wesley (Alexis Denisof, the future Mr. Hannigan) was ineffectual, and tensions began to rise between the two Slayers. When it was revealed that this year’s “Big Bad” was the town’s own mayor (a move cleverly foreshadowed in earlier seasons), Faith decamped to his side.

Season 3 ended with Sunnydale High being blown into a thousand pieces with the evil Mayor inside it. It was the end of an era. Buffy and Willow - now experimenting with magic and witchcraft - were headed for college and Xander into employment and Angel to Los Angeles, and his own spin-off show.

Hush is probably the best episode of the entire series.

Growing Up and Onwards
Season 4 marked a new format for the show. It was revealed that the American government had become aware of the supernatural forces extant in the world and funded a new organisation, the Initiative, to deal with them. Buffy reluctantly joins forces with them to defeat a new series of threats, eventually culminating in a battle against “Adam” a human-demon-cyborg hybrid.

The fourth season was the patchiest of the show to date, something that evident even when it was on the air. Episodes like Beer Bad were wince-inducing and both the Initiative (when they initially appeared in an antagonistic role) and Adam were underwhelming villains. Having had Buffy brutally betrayed by her one true love and later forced to fight a darker version of herself in Faith, later villains could not help but feel underwhelming in comparison.

But there were also highlights. Superstar, which featured supporting character Jonathan (Danny Strong) casting a magic spell to “retcon” himself as the star of the show (and also the lead actor of The Matrix), was hilarious. Far better still, and almost certainly the finest episode of the entire series, was Hush. Almost two-thirds of the episode unfolded with no dialogue at all, pitting Buffy and her friends against the sinister, evil Gentlemen in a tour de force of writing, direction and acting.
Arguably the best move the series made at this time was the introduction of Amber Benson (now a successful YA fantasy author) as Tara, a fellow witch and love interest for Willow. Although not quite unprecedented, the depiction of a healthy, same-sex relationship on a youth-oriented American network show was unusual for 1999 and given a lot of praise for the mature way it was handled.

The season ended with an interesting finale, a bizarre and surreal episode called Restless which saw the characters having heavily symbolic dreams. Often cited as one of the best episodes of the series, it also foreshadowed what happened next.

The cast of Buffy in Season 5, including Amber Benson as Tara (in the back row) and Michelle Trachtenberg as Dawn (next to Gellar).

“Be Back Before Dawn”
In the first episode of Season 5, Buffy meets Dracula. This turns out to be a rather underwhelming confrontation. Far more startling is what happens at the end of the episode: Buffy returns home to meet up with her completely hitherto-unseen and unmentioned little sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg, later of Gossip Girl).

Much of the rest of the season revolved around the mystery of Dawn and where she came from, itself rather difficult given that Buffy and co were acting like she’d been there all along. Eventually it was revealed that time had been rewritten so Buffy could become the protector of a magical “key”, made manifest in the form of her sister. An evil goddess named Glory was in hot pursuit of the key, but limited in her ability to locate it. At the end of the season Buffy sacrifices her life to stop Glory and save her friends…and her new sister.

Along the way the fifth season had some interesting moments, such as Spike’s growing integration with the rest of the Scooby Gang and Tara’s family (including a pre-fame Amy Adams) showing up. Most notable is a story arc in which Buffy’s mother, Joyce, develops a brain tumour. After initially responding well to treatment, she abruptly dies in the episode The Body. Directed without music and almost in real-time, this episode is another one of the highlights of the series, as raw and powerful an exploration of grief as any so-called “adult” drama show has attempted.

At the end of the fifth season the show began wrapping up, Whedon preparing to move onto new projects (he had begun developing a science fiction show for Fox). But then the United Paramount Network (UPN) swooped in to save the day and allow the show to continue for another two seasons.

Buffy's musical episode, Once More with Feeling, gave the cast the chance to sing, which suited some actors better than others. Whedon later revisited the concept in his excellent web serial, Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.

Culture, Alienation, Boredom and Despair
The sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, depending on how you look at it, the bravest and most experimental or the most depressing and diabolical. The season largely eschewed the traditional “Big Bad” format to instead focus on Buffy’s magical resurrection and the PTSD she suffers as a result (culminating in an ill-advised romantic liaison with Spike). The closest to a recurring villain was a collection of previous, C-list bad guys who had joined forces to take Buffy down, but who were so inept Buffy barely knew they even existed. Meanwhile, long-running relationships (such as Xander and Anya) ended, Giles left California for England (occasionally returning) and the tone of the series remained fairly depressing. Even the much-vaunted musical episode, Once More with Feeling, ended on a massive downer.

At the end of the season Tara is inadvertently shot dead, driving Willow into a homicidal rage. Using magic, Willow tries to bring about the apocalypse and is only halted by Xander invoking their long-term friendship.

The closing moments of the final episode, what remains one of the best-ever endings to an SFF series.

Going Out With a Bang
Joss Whedon decided to end the show with its seventh season, which made it all the more surprising that he also decided to reboot the series with a new paradigm. A group of “potentials”, young girls who could become the next Slayer if Buffy and Faith die, take refuge with Buffy when killers start picking them off, trying to end the Slayer line forever. The investigation of this mystery, along with Dawn starting high school at the newly-rebuilt Sunnydale High, gives the seventh season a much more interesting and original dynamic, with numerous new characters (one of them played by geek girl of the moment Felicia Day) arriving, Willow getting a new romance and everyone having their moment in the sun.

The final season of Buffy also aired in the wake of the premature cancellation of Joss Whedon’s SF show, Firefly. By way of apology for that, Whedon found employment for his actors from that series on the mothership: Nathan Fillion has a memorable turn as the villainous Caleb in the final season of Buffy (whilst Gina Torres and Adam Baldwin would get recurring roles on Angel).

The final season of Buffy is certainly a far cry from the show at its best, but it still served up an all-time classic episode (the Hugo Award-winning Conversations with Dead People) and featured some great character interplay. Most importantly, the series went out with a high. Having blown up Sunnydale High in Season 3, the series finale, Chosen, went one step further and obliterated the entire town of Sunnydale. More interestingly, it also bequeathed the powers of the Slayer on all of the “potentials”, resulting in hundreds of young women all around the world gaining superpowers and the ability to fight evil. The final act of the show is to tell Buffy that she is no longer alone. It’s a remarkable, effective and powerful moment which sees Buffy finally grow up.

But Once More, with Feeling
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a good TV show, although it took a while to find its feet and arguably peaked early (Joss Whedon later admitting that having Angel turn evil and forcing Buffy to “kill” him should have been done later, as it was impossible to top that as a storyline). But it was a show that constantly entertained, constantly innovated and never kept its feet still for long.

On a thematic level Buffy was an exploration of feminism, growing up, teen relationships, sexuality, depression, loneliness and how awesome British guys with glasses are. It was also a kick-ass action series, a comedy and a family saga. At its worst it could be soapy or repetitive. At its best it was sublime, hilarious, touching and tragic.

This can put down to the vision and writing skills of not just Joss Whedon but the excellent team he assembled: Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson, Douglas Petrie, Drew Goddard, Drew Greenberg, Steven DeKnight, David Fury and David Greenwald, most prominently. This team of writers would become very accomplished in their own rights, working on TV shows such as Spartacus, Daredevil and Battlestar Galactica, and movies including Cloverfield and Cabin in the Woods. The show, of course, improved the lot of Joss Whedon immensely, paving the way for him to make TV shows such as Firefly and Dollhouse and movies including The Avengers, Serenity and his Much Ado About Nothing. There was also the fact that Buffy gave rise to its own, arguably superior spin-off show, Angel, which took a lot of the lessons learned on Buffy and made them even darker and more powerful.

But without Buffy none of that would have happened. The show’s impact on pop culture was immense and it remains a highly entertaining and resonant show today (just avoid the half-arsed HD remaster for now, until they fix it). A lot of modern shows can trace their inspiration to that moment a quarter of a century ago when Joss Whedon realised that a girl killing monsters was a lot of fun.



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Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Jason Isaacs takes command of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY

Jason "Lucius Malfoy" Isaacs has been cast in Star Trek: Discovery as Captain Lorca. Hopefully this will go better than his last foray into space in Event Horizon (which ended, er, painfully for his character).


Lorca is the captain of the USS Discovery but, in an interesting move, will not be the main character. That will instead be Lt. Commander Rainsford, played by The Walking Dead's Sonequa Martin-Green. The show will not feature the traditional bridge crew dynamic as its main focus, instead featuring certain crewmembers on the ship as main characters and others as background.

Star Trek: Discovery's first season is currently in production in Toronto. It will debut in late summer or early spring on CBS in the United States and Netflix in much of the rest of the world.

Cover artwork for next MALAZAN novel revealed

The cover artwork for the next Malazan novel has been revealed.


Deadhouse Landing is the second novel in the Path to Ascendancy prequel series by Ian C. Esslemont. Taking place a century or so before the events of Gardens of the Moon and the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Esslemont's colleague, Steven Erikson, this series chronicles the founding of the Malazan Empire.

The book will be released on 10 August this year.

Cities of Fantasy: Sigil, the City of Doors

The multiverse is dazzlingly infinite, a multitude of dimensions and planes coexisting across all time and space. Travellers can step from technologically-advanced worlds to worlds of choking fog to planes of eternal fire or water, all in an instant. It’s a confusing, dizzying morass of nestled realities, jaw-dropping wonders and horrific obscenities.


Sigil is where planewalkers go to get a beer and information, or buy exotic goods, or sometimes just to find a better way of getting from A to B when A and B are located in different universes.
Sigil is the City of Doors. It lies at the precise centre of reality, according to the marketing, equidistant from all other points in the entirety of creation. People with too much time on their hands argue that this is piffle and indeed codswallop, since the multiverse is infinite and cannot have a centre. They then get into lengthy arguments and send angry letters to one another. The inhabitants of Sigil don’t really care.

Sigil is not pronounced like “sigil”, for sign or badge. It is instead pronounced “Sig-ill”. Getting this wrong will immediately identify you as a newcomer in the city, or “Clueless”.

Physical Description               
The city is located on the inner surface of a curved torus six and a half miles in diameter, one-and-a-half miles thick and twenty miles in circumference, located many thousands of feet above the Spire, a massive mountainous structure (tens or hundreds of thousands of feet high) located at the heart of the Plane of Concordant Opposition (please don’t use this name in public), or more colloquially, the Outlands. The torus floats freely on its side, so gravity in Sigil is slanted ninety degrees to the world outside. To avoid metaphysical confusion and/or vomiting, it is not possible to see the outside world from within Sigil, thanks to a sort of grey-brownish haze that permeates a lot of the city. This also frequently blocks the view of the far side of the city directly overhead, which can also be disconcerting. Flying creatures can fly from one side of the city to the other, but cannot fly out of the city and down to the ground (given the titanic height and the thinness of the air immediately outside, this would not be recommended anyway). Nor can people “fall” out of the city from one side or the other, nor can flying creatures enter the city from outside. Any attempt to do any of these things results in the entity in question being teleported to another part of the Outlands, or sometimes another plane altogether.

The torus, or “tyre” as some describe it, is curved on its inner sides, meaning that walking down the street on a relatively clear day when the smog and haze is light, a traveller will see the streets rising up ahead and behind her, as well as on either side, giving the impression of being at the bottom of a bowl or valley at almost all times. Looking straight up across the centre of the torus, the opposite side of the city can be seen several miles away, with its ribbon of streets and landmarks clearly visible. Simply walking around in Sigil can be an unnerving experience until travellers acclimatise.

The city is divided into six major districts or wards. The Lady’s Ward is home to the city’s administrative offices and its most exclusive and rich estates. Adjacent to that is the Lower Ward, the industrial district clogged with smoke from foundries and the portals to the Lower Planes. Beyond that lies the Hive, a slum where the poor and dregs of the city can be found, along with a thriving black market. Those criminal enterprises that are permitted in Sigil are usually centred here. Further along the ring lies the relatively affluent Clerk’s Ward, which is home to the city’s lower-rung bureaucrats and administrators. The small Guildhall Ward lies beyond, which is home to many craftsmen and artisans. They in turn sell their goods in the neighbouring Market Ward, the commercial wing of the city and arguably its beating heart. Just beyond the Market Ward, the Lady’s Ward commences again, and a traveller has completed one circumnavigation of the ring (and is probably very tired and thirsty).

Sigil as it appears in Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. Artwork by Jason Engle.

Population
The city of Sigil is a way-station for people travelling across the planes. At any one time it is estimated that well over three million sentients are within the city, but most of them will be transients. The permanent population of the city is much harder to gauge, with estimates ranging from half a million to one million. The Lower Ward and Hive are crowded and jam-packed with rickety buildings, whilst the Lady’s and Clerk’s wards are home to more spacious, sprawling estates and are relatively quieter. The Market is bustling and rowdy. The city’s population also consists of every species imaginable from the multiverse: humans (who tend to get everywhere) are reasonably common, but so are tieflings and other more adventurous of the planar species.

The Doors
The only way in or out of Sigil is through interdimensional portals, often called “doors” in the city. Some portals are clearly and publicly marked, and people can freely pass through them. Other portals open and close at random in the city, ready to snare the unwary; some portals are only passable through one direction so cannot be used to return to the city. Yet other portals, usually those leading to more exotic, dangerous or unstable parts of the multiverse, can only be passed by those who have the correct key. The difficulties of accessing or leaving the city have occasionally led it to being nicknamed “The Cage”, although other sources for the name have been proposed.
As a result of the doors, the city is home to almost every species imaginable in the multiverse. Tieflings and elves from Toril mix with demons of the Abyss and half-dwarves from Athas and kender from Krynn. Normally hostile species – such as beholders, dark elves, devils from Baator and even the occasional smaller chromatic dragon – may be found peacefully engaged in uncharacteristic pursuits, such as shopping in the Market Ward or visiting the Brothel for Slating Intellectual Lusts. Violence in Sigil is certainly not unknown, but large-scale riots, civil disorder and conflict simply do not occur.

The Factions
The city is dominated by fifteen political factions, each one of which pursues a moral or thematic philosophy. The fifteen factions are the Athar (who deny the divinity of deities); Godsmen (who believe in the potential divinity of all living beings); Bleak Cabal (who believe that there is no metaphysical reality imposed from without and only physical laws and individual action matter), Doomguard (who believe in the inevitability of entropy and the eventual annihilation of everything); Dustmen (who believe that life and death are false states of existence and strive for a balanced existence of emotional denial, the True Death); the Fated (who believe that might makes right and the strong are allowed to profit from the weak); the Guvners (who believe that knowledge is everything and are experts in both scientific and judicial law); the Indeps (who believe in absolute individual freedom and reject the notion of the factions altogether); the Harmonium (who believe in power, stability and control through authority and discipline); the Mercykillers (who believe that mercy is for the weak and the merciful should be punished); the Anarchists (who believe in anarchy); the Signers (who believe that everyone is the centre of their own personal reality and they should strive to make the most of their individual existences); the Sensates (who seek to experience that all can be experienced to make the most of existence); the Ciphers (who seek “oneness” with the multiverse to achieve transcendence); and the Chaosmen (who believe that truth is only revealed in uncertainty and discord, if not outright chaos and mayhem).

The factions are powerful and influential in the city, although they are also dangerous. Travellers passing through Sigil are advised not to let themselves get caught up in their political webs if they do not plan to stay long. Conversely, those who plan to make a home permanently in the Cage will have little choice but to pick a side. The factions engage in philosophical debate with one another and conflict in the city, particularly between the factions whose philosophies are not in conflict, is often limited to high-minded (if often spirited) discussions in the city’s many taverns.

However, some of the factions are diametrically opposed to one another. The Harmonium, for example, has little to no time for either the Anarchists or Indeps, and frequently comes into conflict with the Chaosmen. But widespread violence in the city is limited by the true ruler of all Sigil and her word of law: the Lady’s Peace.

Her Serenity the Lady of Pain as she appeared in the Planescape Campaign Setting Boxed Set (1994). Artwork by Tony Diterlizzi.

The Lady
The true ruler – or guardian – of Sigil is known only as the Lady, or occasionally (and not in her hearing), the “Lady of Pain”. The standard form of address is “Her Serenity”. The Lady is an extremely tall humanoid female with a piercing gaze. She is always clothed in immense robes and floats above the ground, never touching the street. Her head is surrounded by a mantle of imposing blades. She has no castle, manse or known abode, appearing and disappearing in the streets at will. She also never speaks. Instead, the Lady is always accompanied by her minions, the dabus. The dabus are humanoids with yellow skin, white hair and goatlike horns, likewise floating slightly above the ground, who communicate through visual written communiques, floating hieroglyphs known as rebuses. Over the centuries most of the inhabitants of Sigil have come fluent in what these symbols mean, which is essential because they are ignored at mortal peril.

Those who threaten the Lady’s Peace are “mazed”, disappearing into pocket dimensions consisting of mazes. These mazes may be physical obstructions, or conjured out of the nightmares of the individual, or form some kind of existential paradox challenging the prisoner’s very beliefs and self-identity. Those who escape their maze may return peacefully to Sigil, but very few ever do, having usually been exposed to sights and ideas that haunt their waking and sleeping moments alike for the remainder of their existence. Being mazed is considered a mild punishment compared to the alternatives, however.

Those who transgress further, by inciting faction wars or riots, may find the Lady’s Shadow falling on them. The Lady herself maintains a clam demeanour at all times and certainly never engages in physical combat or spellcasting. Instead, the merest touch of the shadow of her mantle of blades will result in maiming, dismemberment, or instantaneous flaying alive. The Lady is immune to all forms of physical coercion or magic.

Indeed, the Lady’s very presence appears to warp the standing field of null-magic on the plane. The Outlands are notable as magical effects disappear closer to the centre, and at the base of the Spire magic simply becomes unusable. The Lady appears to reverse this field and allows magic to be used within the confines of Sigil. Many mages theorise that the Lady’s presence also allows Sigil itself to exist. If someone were to somehow kill the Lady, it is possible Sigil would plummet out of the sky to its destruction seconds later.

The Lady’s true name, origins and nature are all utterly unknown. It is known that the only time she was ever even slightly challenged was when the god Aoskar managed to gain entrance to the city to strive for dominance. The Lady destroyed him without drawing breath. This has led to the widespread belief that the Lady herself is either a goddess, or has the powers of one within Sigil. Some have theorised that if Sigil is the Cage, then the Lady may be its gaoler or, more disconcertingly, its prisoner.

Behind the Scenes
Sigil, the City of Doors, is arguably the single most intriguing and compelling city ever created for the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game. A bizarre city where ideology and philosophy determined a person’s circumstance and wars were fought with ideas and arguments rather than swords and magic, it was the New Weird a good few years before the New Weird even existed. The fact that it came from the game that was arguably the very definition of “stock fantasy” was even more remarkable.

Sigil originated in the Planescape Campaign Setting boxed set, released by TSR, Inc. in 1994 for the 2nd Edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. The idea behind the Planescape world was to take the long-standing different planes of reality established in previous D&D products, most notably Jeff Grubb’s Manual of the Planes (1987), and flesh them out into a full setting.

Veteran and well-regarded game designer David “Zeb” Cook took charge of the project. Early on he realised that the planes were too vast and remote a concept to easily explain, so he created Sigil and the Outlands as a way of presenting the planes in miniature and concentrating the ideas in a smaller area of space. Sigil also conveniently provided the players with a home base, somewhere they could use to range out to other worlds on adventures, but also vast enough in itself for entire campaigns to play out in its streets and on its rooftops.

Monte Cook (no relation) and Colin McComb fleshed out the Planescape setting over numerous expansions, but the setting didn’t really take off in popularity the way TSR had been hoping. The final Planescape roleplaying product was published in 1998 and the setting faded out of print afterwards. However, the adventures and materials related to Sigil had proven quite popular so Sigil lived on. When the 3rd Edition of D&D was released in 2000, Sigil was referenced in the rulebooks and the Manual of the Planes, new editions of which were released in 2001 and 2009 (for 4th Edition). The city has been referenced in the current 5th Edition of the game, with the hope it may be the focal point for a future setting or adventure.

However, the pen-and-paper game is not the real reason for Sigil’s popularity. In late 1999 Black Isle released a computer roleplaying game called Planescape: Torment, created by Chris Avellone and Colin McComb, who had worked on the pen-and-paper game. The game, almost fully half of which was set in Sigil, fully embraced the setting’s ideals and gripped the imagination of hundreds of thousands of players as they grappled with the fate of the mysterious “Nameless One” and his growing crew of damaged and strange friends. The game has often been hailed as the single greatest CRPG ever created, in no small part to its vividly strange setting.

In terms of fiction Sigil has appeared in only a handful of novels, most successfully Pages of Pain by Troy Denning which attempted to fill in some of the backstory of the Lady of Pain without actually ruining the character. It was an arguable success. However, the cessation of the Planescape campaign line in 1998 meant that the fiction line was cancelled as well.


Sigil stands as one of the weirdest and most interesting cities created in the history of fantasy, owing more of a debt to Moorcock and Harrison than Tolkien or Leiber. It’ll be interesting to see if it returns to prominence in future D&D products, especially with a new line of movies based on the setting in development.


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