Saturday, 16 January 2077

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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.


Monday, 21 May 2018

Amazon in provisional talks to save THE EXPANSE

Amazon has reached a provisional agreement with Alcon Entertainment to save The Expanse.


SyFy dropped the show last week after disappointing ratings for the first few episodes of Season 3, despite the show scoring a rare 100% positive review metric at Rotten Tomatoes. The Expanse is the second-highest-rated show on the network (behind only The Magicians), but SyFy's deal with Alcon Entertainment means they only get first-run US broadcast rights. Streaming rights go to Amazon US and international broadcast rights go to Netflix. DVD and Blu-Ray sales also go to Alcon. This means that in order to monetise the show, SyFy needs the show to be a big hit on first-run broadcast or on reruns or DVR recordings watched within three days. And of course, that's not how people consume media any more.

Amazon's deal is provisional and apparently dependent on a financially suitable package being worked out that is agreeable to everyone. Potential sticking points relate to the show's international rights and whether it's possible for Amazon to pick them up for Netflix without it breaking the bank to do so, or even if it's possible for Amazon and Netflix to do a shared distribution deal, which would be breaking new ground.

The Expanse is an appealing pick-up for Amazon: it's critically acclaimed but also has mass appeal (which neither SyFy nor Netflix have fully realised), it is relatively cheap by Amazon's standards even as it was quite expensive by SyFy's, and it already has a production team and cast in place, along with standing sets and a shooting schedule. The show's team has also been surprisingly good at getting seasons out the door with only 12-14 months between them, unlike the 18-24 months being taken by other streaming shows. Amazon has picked up a whole raft of SF and fantasy projects based on books recently (including Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian, Ringworld and a show based on Iain Banks' Culture novels), so The Expanse fits into that wheelhouse perfectly. The good news is that with all of those projects at least three years away, The Expanse could get at least another two seasons on TV before they hit, giving Amazon some much needed original content.

Apparently Jeff Bezos is a fan of the books (the guy is a massive SFF fan) and was keen on Amazon getting involved in the first place when the US streaming rights came up, and is happy to shell out the money for the entire show as long as it makes sense to do so. It now looks like the deal will hinge on whether Amazon can extricate the rights from Amazon, but so far the noises sound positive.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

The Second Poppy War between the vast Nikara Empire and the island-bound Federation of Mugen ended in victory for Nikara...just. The cost of victory was high, so the Empire has established an elite military academy at Sinegard. Open to everyone, nobles and commoners alike, the academy is training the next generation of warriors who will defend the Empire. For Rin, a war orphan from the provinces, the academy is her only hope of avoiding her arranged marriage. But the path she sets out on will take her to far stranger places, and in the maelstrom of an unwinnable war involving forces she does not comprehend.


The Poppy War is the debut novel by R.F. Kuang and is an Asian-themed epic fantasy. War, magic and dark forces beyond mortal ken are all present and correct, as are angst, training montages and moral mazes the characters find impossible to travel through without getting blood on their hands and their consciences.

The novel doesn't do anything particularly new, but it does have an interesting arc for the central character of Rin. Normally these kind of stories feature a plucky young hero who is tempted by dark forces but nobly avoids them and wins a great victory for the forces of the light anyway. The Poppy War doesn't do that. It's message is consistently one of choice and consequence: the easy option is always the more costly one, and Rin, being a teenage orphan with no real experience of how the world works, makes pretty much the worst decision at every turn. It's a human and realistic response that moves The Poppy War away from its opening chapters - where it veers a bit too close to every fantasy school drama you've ever read - more towards psychological horror and a bloody-minded war story. Imagine Joe Abercrombie taking over Harry Potter halfway through the series before handing off to R. Scott Bakker for the finale and you may have an idea of the dramatic tonal darkening the novel undergoes on its way to one of the more memorable fantasy finales of recent years.

There's an interesting magic system, based around the summoning of god-spirits into the world, although this is not developed perhaps as fully as it could have been. The worldbuilding is fine on a macro level but on the level of fine detail it is lacking. The best fantasy worlds draw you into them, making you eager to learn more about them, but Nikara and Mugen are drawn in very broad strokes. The modern language (including a fair bit of swearing) and nomenclature are reasonable language choices, but doesn't do much to bring you into the mindset and shoes of the characters. The map, for once, is a hindrance rather than a help as it is drawn with apparently no mind to scale (Nikara is supposedly enormous but the islands of Speer and Mugen - widely separated on the map - are within eyesight of one another) and ends up being more confusing than enlightening.

These elements are negligible compared to the fine character work that's employed, especially as Kuang has very little truck with telling yet another version of the hero's journey. There's also a relentless pace to the novel. In 500 pages it covers more ground than some 2,000-page trilogies, with dramatic shifts in setting, cast and tone as the book proceeds. Compared to fantasy sagas that take a thousand pages to clear their throat, there's something to be said for how quickly and determinedly The Poppy War gets down to business.

The Poppy War (****) is an accomplished fantasy novel, especially for a debut, with an unusually bleak and cynical tone to it that becomes much more pronounced as it continues (to the point where I'm glad the next book I'm reading is the much more positive Space Opera). The characters are interesting and well-developed, but the worldbuilding and magic could be a bit more developed. Hopefully we'll see this in the sequels, as The Poppy War is (as you may have guessed), the opening volume of a trilogy. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

HD version of BABYLON 5 may be possible after all

In a surprising move, Babylon 5 creator/showrunner/writer J. Michael Straczynski has revealed on Twitter (whilst announcing the news that B5 will be available on Amazon Prime next month, at least in the USA) that it may be possible to remaster the show in HD after all...with a few caveats.

The original Babylon 5 and EAS Cortez CG models re-rendered to modern HD standards (with a new background). Whilst the Warner Brothers film masters wouldn't look this good, they'd be big improvement over the DVD versions of the show.

To reiterate the previous situation: Babylon 5 was shot in widescreen on Super 35mm film - from which a HD image can be extracted from the original film stock rather easily - and then mastered (having CGI, sound and music added) on standard-definition video. The SD video master tapes of Babylon 5 have been the source for the original broadcast version of the show, the VHS and DVD releases and the various streaming options available over the last few years. It is not possible to extract a HD image from video, so that was assumed to be it for Babylon 5.

The only way to get a HD Babylon 5 would be to go back to the original film stock and extract a new HD image of all the live-action footage - which is time-consuming and tedious, but straightforward - and then re-render all of the thousands of CG effects and composite shots* in the show from scratch - which would be mind-bogglingly time-consuming and expensive. Star Trek: The Next Generation took this approach, but the show didn't have much CGI to re-render, as most of the effects were handled in-camera on film, so it was straightforward to remaster. It still took four years and cost $20 million, and took years to break even across multiple media releases and years of streaming on Netflix and CBS All Access. Babylon 5 would cost around twice that as it had far more CG than ST:TNG and in fact far more effects shots in total, despite being almost seventy episodes shorter in length. Given the relative obscurity of Babylon 5 compared to ST:TNG, this would appear to be commercially unviable.

(* a composite shot is one that combines live-action footage with effects, so any shot which has weapons being fired, the characters standing in front of a green or blue screen, interacting with CG characters etc)

However, Straczynski has completely upended this understanding of the situation with new information.

It turns out that at the end of every season of Babylon 5, Warner Brothers requested that every episode be completely re-mastered on 35mm film. This was for an archival copy to sit in the WB archives and to match the show as broadcast. This process involved taking the digital elements - including the original CG shots in their original resolution (noticeably higher than what we saw on TV from the video master) - and putting them on film.

So in order to get a full HD version of Babylon 5, all one has to do is extract a broadcast copy from each film reel, and since everything is on there already - including CG - that's all you need to do. It's extremely cheap.

This may sound too good to be true, and there is a hitch. Because this was an archival copy of the episode as already aired, it only involved the 4:3 TV format, not the widescreen master which only exists on video. Or to put it another way, Babylon 5's HD edition would only be available in 4:3, not widescreen, despite Babylon 5 being the first TV show ever filmed directly in widescreen. Which is both ironic and immensely frustrating. As long-term B5 fans know, the CGI for Babylon 5 only exists in 4:3, with the widescreen CG shots seen on the DVD release coming about from cropping the image (which is incredibly annoying, and loses information from the top and bottom of the image), so this would both restore the original CG image and in a much higher resolution, but at the cost of losing the live-action widescreen shots.

There is the possibility of going back to the original film stock for the live-action-only shots and combining those with this new master to get at least some of the show in widescreen HD at a still-reasonable price, but the series would need to switch to 4:3 for every CGI and composite scene, which would be rather distracting.

Whilst it's not a perfect solution, it does open up the possibility of seeing Babylon 5 in high definition, at level of visual quality never seen before. Whether Warner Brothers are prepared to invest such a remaster remains to be seen, but at least now, in the long, twilight struggle of rewatching your favourite twenty-year-old SF show, there is the possibility of hope.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

LORD OF THE RINGS TV series will focus on Aragorn

The One Ring - the largest Middle-earth fansite with numerous, decades-long contacts inside the Tolkien Estate, publishers, Weta, New Line Cinema and Amazon - has confirmed that Amazon's new Lord of the Rings TV series will focus on the adventures of Aragorn some decades prior to the events of the novels and movies.


This news was not unexpected, with Aragorn's adventures as a young man - partially related in The Lord of the Rings' appendices - serving as the most logical basis for a Rings prequel story, given that the Tolkien Estate, despite a warmer attitude to this project, has not sold the rights to Unfinished Tales or The Silmarillion.

Meanwhile, Andy Serkis has confirmed that he is not interested in reprising his role as Gollum for the project, although given that a "young Aragorn" series would predate The Hobbit, Gollum would not be expected to appear anyway. However, if the series moves into the timeframe between the two books, there is scope for the series to include the "Hunt for Gollum" storyline from Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn and Legolas track Gollum down in Mirkwood on Gandalf's orders to keep him away from the Shire.

The Lord of the Rings TV series is expected to enter production in 2019 or 2020 to air in 2021.

SyFy hints at a rethink on THE EXPANSE cancellation...if ratings improve

According to Expanse actor Cas Anvar, SyFy has suggested it might reverse its decision to drop The Expanse is there is an improvement in the show's ratings for the remainder of Season 3. This is on top of positive noises from Amazon that they are at least aware of the situation, with Netflix having passed on it.



According to Anvar, SyFy's metrics for measuring the success of the show are down to its first-run viewing figures (it's "live" figures when it first airs on SyFy). They also count all DVR recordings, as long as they are viewed within 3 days. Apparently - and SyFy themselves have rather oddly confirmed this (suggesting they're happy to game their own system) - if you do both, it counts as two viewings of the show.


Fans of the show paid to have this banner flown over Amazon HQ for four hours yesterday.

This is only helpful for American viewers, since international viewers won't be able to see Season 3 for another six months thanks to the (dubious) international distribution deal that was worked out between SyFy and Alcon Entertainment.

The window for saving the show is unclear: there are six episodes of Season 3 left to air before the season ends in June, but some reports have suggested that Alcon won't be willing to pay for storage for the sets and props beyond a few more weeks, so that if the show isn't picked up soon they'll strike the (very expensive) sets and that will make the cost of remounting the show much greater.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Netflix passes on THE EXPANSE, Amazon interested

According to Jim Murray, who works behind the scenes on The Expanse, Netflix have indicated they are not interested in continuing the series on their streaming service, despite already having the international airing rights. However, he also confirms that Amazon have shown an interest in picking up the slack.


Amazon already stream the show in the United States after the initial broadcast on SyFy. The show also arguably fits Amazon's original programming more than Netflix's. Amazon are on a major SF and fantasy binge, recently taking out options on the novels RingworldSnow Crash, Consider Phlebas and The Three-Body Problem, as well as developing new fantasy series based on the Dark Tower, Wheel of Time, Lord of the Rings and Conan the Barbarian series. The Expanse is also based on a best-selling SF book series and some fans have noted that the show's focus on (relatively) near-future Solar system colonisation even makes it a good fit for promoting Jeff Bezos's Blue Origins space project.

You can contact Amazon Studios directly here, using the "For Your Consideration" tab.


Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency: Seasons 1-2

Bellboy Todd Brotzman is not having a good day. He is in trouble with his landlord, his sister is suffering from a disease that leaves her housebound and he's just discovered some dead bodies in the penthouse of the hotel he works in. Just as things can't get any worse, he meets an eccentric Englishman named Dirk Gently who insists that he is Todd's best friend and gets embroiled in an increasingly bizarre detective case.


Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is a BBC America production that ran for two seasons in 2016-17. The series is inspired by two novels by British comic SF author Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987) and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988). The TV show's relationship to the novels is ambiguous: references to the events of the novel in the show suggest this is a sequel to the books, but Dirk Gently's backstory, character and age are at extreme variance with his book incarnation. Given Douglas Adams' own predilection for rewriting his stories every time he moved them to a new medium, it's probably for the best to consider this series to be more inspired by the books than directly adapting them.

The TV show comes across as a bizarre, madcap adventure which borrows a lot from the work of Noah Hawley (Fargo, Legion), with the same offbeat tone and odd dialogue choices. It's much more overtly science fictional though, with time travel, body-swapping and parallel universes playing a role. It's also surprisingly violent, with death, explosions and gunfights being a common way of resolving plot threads. In that sense the show feels like it's trying to be cleverer than it actually is - scriptwriter Max Landis (Bright) is not a particularly subtle or nuanced writer - but it's still an eminently watchable show.

The main success of the series is its casting: perennially confused everyman Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings, Wilfred) is perfect as Todd the reluctant sidekick, Samuel Barnett is excellent as Dirk and Fiona Dourif is oustandingly growly as holistic assassin Bart. Rounding off the regular cast is Jade Eshete as badass bodyguard Farah, Hannah Marks as Todd's sister Amanda and Mpho Koaho as IT expert (and reluctant advisor to Bart) Ken. Their characters all initially appear to be fairly broad archetypes - Todd as the sceptic, Dirk as the kooky Englishman - but quickly gain new layers as their backstories are explained. Todd, in particular, gets fleshed out impressively over the first season and we learn more about what drives him.

The two seasons feel like novels in a series, with each season having its own distinct storyline and secondary cast (including the likes of Battlestar Galactica's Aaron Douglas and Firefly's Alan Tudyk) which means each can be watched and enjoyed individually, with important character arcs continuing between them. The first season delves into a weird cult operating in Seattle, whilst the second focus on a town in rural Montana which has been plagued by strange events. Both stories are strong in their own way (Season 1 has the cleverer mystery, Season 2 has the stronger supporting cast), although the tonal difference between them can be a bit jarring if you watch the whole series right through.

There's a lot to enjoy about the series, from the characters to the offbeat writing to the meticulously-constructed plot. However, there are some issues. The show seems to be channelling the likes of Fargo but isn't quite as good. Being based on a pair of Douglas Adams novels, you also expect the writer to either base the story on the books or at least bring some of Adams' sensibility to the screen and doesn't really do either. There may be no two finer writers to crib from than Noah Hawley and Douglas Adams, but doing so overtly and not coming up to either's standard is a bit disappointing. The very vague connections between the books and the TV show also make the connection feel worthless: Landis may have been better dropping that connection and just creating his own completely original property rather than leaning on these well-known books.

Still, if you can move beyond that there's a lot to enjoy. The performances are exceptionally good (Fiona Dourif - daughter of Brad - offers up some next-level intensity and weirdness), the stories are clever and make sense (eventually) and it's great to see a show that leans in and embraces its weird side. The biggest issue is that the writers were setting up a longer-term arc for the series and its cancellation after Season 2 does waste some of that setup work. Still, the primary storylines of the first two seasons are resolved and there's much less of a cliffhanger ending to the story, so it can be enjoyed as a completed entity.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (****) is available now on Blu-Ray in the US and on Netflix in much of the rest of the world.

The Good Place: Seasons 1-2

Eleanor Shellstrop is killed by freak accident involving shopping trolleys and an erectile dysfunction advertising truck. She wakes up in a surprisingly non-denominational afterlife and is told that, thanks to a life dedicated to charity and selflessness, she has made it to "the good place." Unfortunately, there's been a mistake. Eleanor is superficial, selfish, self-centred and cynical. Terrified at this mistake being discovered, Eleanor sets out on a quest to become a better person...whatever that means.


The Good Place is a sitcom riffing on some pretty weighty themes: life, death, religion, morality, existentialism and ethics. Fortunately, it's also an extremely funny show. Created by Michael Schur, modern American TV's sitcom-whisperer (he cut his teeth on the American Office before co-creating Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine), it's a high concept that the show repeatedly explores and deconstructs. It's also, startlingly, a heavily serialised show. The Good Place is not a status quo sitcom, it's an ongoing, continuing narrative. The fact that each episode is called a "Chapter" and the numbering continues between seasons confirms this.

Thematically the show is an exploration of whether our characters are set in stone by immutable factors, or if we can change ourselves for the better, and if doing so out of fear (in this case, the fear of going to "the bad place") is still morally a good thing if the results are positive and beneficial, for the individual or the community. Students of ethics and philosophy will get a buzz out of some very funny jokes revolving around Kant, Plato and Aristotle.

Schur knows that such musings aren't going to be for everyone, so also grounds the comedy through the character of Eleanor, who has no particular interest in such ideas. The exceptionally-talented Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars, Heroes, FanboysFrozen) is as watchable and funny as ever as Eleanor, depicting her as a selfish woman who is only out for #1 but rapidly evolves as a person when she finds herself in the afterlife and having to make up for her mistakes after the fact. William Jackson Harper is also exceptional as Chidi, a neurotic ethics professor whose help Eleanor enlists to become a better person. Rounding out the main cast are Jameela Jamil as uber-socialite Tahani, Manny Jacinto as Jianyu (a Buddhist monk who is more - or less - than he seems), D'Arcy Carden as Janet (a personal assistant who constructs and maintains the good place) and the mighty Ted Danson as Michael, the sort-of angel who designed this particular version of the good place. The cast is exceptional, with great chemistry.


The show's continuously developing plot and short-order seasons (each season is only 13 episodes long, each only 22 minutes in length) makes it both easy to catch up with and addictive to watch. For a high-concept sitcom not to exploit its ideas until they're dry but instead relentlessly finding new ground is unusual, but works very well.

The show does have a couple of weaknesses. First, it moves so fast that sometimes it feels a bit too fast, and a couple of holding-pattern episodes to let viewers catch their breath might be welcome. Secondly, and this is mildly spoilerific, the show presses a big reset button at several key points in the story, junking the character (but not story) development we've seen over multiple episodes and resetting the characters to their Episode 1 status. There's a good story reason for this and the cast copes with it quite well, but it can be frustrating to see our characters playing "getting to know you" again when we've already seen that twice before. Hopefully this will stop with the upcoming third season and the writers will let the characters grow more effectively.

The first two seasons of The Good Place (****½) are funny, well-characterised, cleverer than you'd think and extremely enjoyable, with the writers and actors on the top of their game. The Good Place airs on NBC in the US and on Netflix in much of the rest of the world.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

On the continent of Genabackis the Malazan army lays siege to the city of Pale, which sits under the protection of Anomander Rake, Lord of the Tiste Andii. As the final battle begins, the elite Malazan unit known as the Bridgeburners and several High Mages suffer a calamitous betrayal. Their next mission takes them to Darujhistan, City of Blue Fire, where an even more dangerous showdown awaits...


Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen began unfolding back in 1999 with this divisive novel. Strongly hailed by authors from Stephen Donaldson to J.V. Jones as an important, breakthrough work and found utterly baffling by others, Gardens of the Moon has acquired a bit of a reputation over the years as a hard book to get into.

I've always found this suggestion to be overstated, just as much on this fourth reread as on my first fifteen years ago. Gardens of the Moon is a busy, bustling and striking novel which has little interest in slowing down to providing worldbuilding infodumps. You cling on for dear life and follow the story through or you don't. Still, the benefit of fifteen additional years of books from both Steven Erikson and co-creator Ian Esslemont means there are now other, gentler introductions to this world and this story: you can also jump on board with Erikson's Deadhouse Gates or Esslemont's Night of Knives or Dancer's Lament, which all have somewhat easier opening sections.

Gardens of the Moon opens with a bang and doesn't stop for 700 pages. In that time it introduces a whole, vivid world dominated by a powerful empire, dozens of characters, a whole new (and rather vague, at this stage) magic system, a dozen races, multiple gods, a prophetic Tarot card game, undead Neanderthals, a race of elves who are also dragons and more nods to other authors (from Leiber to Donaldson to Cook) than it's possible to parse in one read. It's a mess, without reasonable exposition or grounding in the reality the characters find themselves in.

But it's also a glorious mess. Erikson's imagination here is bigger than a planet, his prose is erudite and far wittier than any first-time author has any right to be (this was Erikson's second-published novel but was written many years earlier), and through the confusion the chaotic charisma of characters like Whiskeyjack, Anomander Rake, Quick Ben, Tattersail, Ganoes Paran, Kalam, Fiddler, Rallick Nom and Caladan Brood is clear. Yes, Gardens of the Moon sometimes feels like starting watching a movie that's already been on for an hour, but that can also be quite good fun.

Once you get through the opening, confusing section at Pale, the action moves to Darujhistan where nobles scheme, assassins plot and thieves fight a clandestine war on the rooftops and things become a lot clearer. From there on it's an easier ride to the big climactic showdown, which is epic, impressive and random (not helped by a deus ex machina resolution, although on rereads when you know what the hell's going on this is much less of a problem).

There are other niggling problems, mainly relating to "GotMisms", worldbuilding and character tics that Erikson put into this book which he changed his mind about in the nine years that passed until he wrote the second volume, Deadhouse Gates. In particular, if the key theme of the Malazan Book of the Fallen is compassion, that theme feels a bit absent in this book as Anomander Rake shows an uncharacteristic amoral ruthlessness (compared to later books) and no-one seems to know anything at all about the ancient races and history of the world whilst later on everyone seems a lot more clued up (one of the more relatable things about this novel is that the characters are often as confused about what's going on as the reader, which is less the case in later volumes of the series). Still, these continuity issues are minor and understandable given the protracted genesis of the series.

Gardens of the Moon (****) is by turns bewildering, confusing, rewarding, exciting and intriguing. It will bewilder a lot of people, but out of that bewilderment will come understanding. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is the most accomplished work of epic fantasy published (predominantly) in the 21st Century to date, and this remains the best place to start, setting the scene as it does for its two successors, which are simply two of the finest fantasy novels ever written. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.