Saturday, 24 September 2016

New Historical SONG OF ICE AND FIRE Maps

Over on my other blog, Atlas of Ice and Fire, I've started looking the historical geography of A Song of Ice and Fire.

The first map, The Dawn of Days, explores Westeros and Essos back in the days when they were joined by the Arm of Dorne and Westeros was covered by vast forests. The second, The Arrival of the First Men, charts the migration of the First Men tribes from Essos into Westeros, the resulting conflict with the Children of the Forest and the bloody war that ended with the signing of the Pact.

More to follow.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Building a Universe in the Public Eye: STAR CITIZEN

Kotaku UK have published an excellent article exploring the development of Star Citizen, a vast science fiction video game from the creators of the Wing Commander series.

For those unfamiliar with it, Star Citizen is the most expensive crowdfunded project in history. It is the brainchild of Chris Roberts, a veteran video game developer who'd worked on projects stretching back to the 1980s and the BBC Micro. Roberts became famous almost overnight for his space combat game Wing Commander, released in 1990 on the PC. It had cutting-edge visuals, a vast sense of scale and an unusually strong storyline. It was one of the first games to really push the PC as a gaming machine as well.

Several sequels and spin-offs followed, some of them worked on by Roberts's brother, Erin. Chris and Erin together set up Digital Anvil Studios in the late 1990s to make a new series of space games set in the same universe, to be published by Microsoft. In 2001 they released a single-player game, mostly created by Erin's team, called Starlancer. It was excellent, one of the best space combat games made before the bottom dropped out of the market. In 2003 they shipped the considerably more controversial Freelancer. Originally mooted as an open-world multiplayer title, the game had been delayed numerous times, was started over on a couple of occasions and fell far short of its ambitions. The game was retooled (fairly late in development) as a singleplayer game with a multiplayer mode. On release it was criticised for being dumbed down (replacing the joystick with mouse-and-keyboard controls like a shooter, for example). In later years it was praised for its moddability, which allowed some enterprising fans to rebuild the game into something more like what Chris Roberts had originally intended, but it certainly wasn't the game that fans originally felt they'd been promised.

By that point Roberts had quit the industry to go and work in Hollywood. His Wing Commander games had developed to feature lengthy full-motion video sequences starring actors like Mark Hamill and John Rhys-Davies, directed by Roberts himself, and Roberts decided to work on a stand-alone Wing Commander film. The resulting movie, released in 1999, was widely derided. Whilst working on Freelancer and encountering publisher interference, Roberts decided that he'd rather work somewhere where his vision could be fulfilled with less hindrance and he went back to Hollywood to work as a producer. He ended up working on movies including The Punisher, Lucky Number Slevin and Lord of War before deciding to return to video game development.

In 2011 Roberts decided to dust off his original design for Freelancer and take another punt at it, this time with much better technology. His original plan had been to create a modest prototype to attract private investment, but the prototype ended up being so ambitious and impressive that fans - many of whom had played the Wing Commander games as kids - flocked to give him their money. Roberts ran a Kickstarter campaign that raised $2.4 million, but also included a crowdfunding platform on his own website. This kept growing and growing in a way they defied belief. As of this month, almost $127 million has been donated to the development of the game.

Star Citizen plans to be the ultimate science fiction video game. You will control an avatar which can pilot one of hundreds of starships as well as engaging in first-person combat both on the ground, in space stations and even in zero-gravity encounters in space. The ships can fly between several hundred planets, landing anywhere on their surfaces (from massive cities to mining bases to open wilderness) and engaging in activities including combat, courier work and passenger-ferrying. The game will have lengthy missions spanning many star systems and taking hours to fulfil, as well as a dynamic, developing universe. The game will also incorporate an entire Wing Commander-esque single-player military campaign called Squadron 42, along with CG movie sequences featuring voice actors including Gillian Anderson and Gary Oldman.

The game will basically be Elite: Dangerous, Crysis and Mass Effect, all at once. It is literally the most ambitious video game ever designed. That budget may sound huge, and it's certainly getting up there for a video game (it's a lot more than, say, Mass Effect 3 or Fallout 4), but it's still only about half the budget of the likes of Grand Theft Auto V and Destiny, which are somewhat more modest in their ambitions.

Yeah, it's an hour long, but well worth it for a look at the sheer scale of what they are attempting.

At this point Star Citizen is two years overdue and it is highly unlikely we will see it before 2018 at the absolute earliest. We may see Squadron 42 next year, if things go well. Some backers have grown angry at the game's lengthy development and what has been perceived as "feature creep" and demanded refunds. However, others are keeping the faith. Recent gameplay videos giving a better idea of what the game will look like - featuring a player moving from a meeting on a space station to flying through space to salvaging a derelict spacecraft to landing on a planet to engaging in combat, all seamlessly - have restored some flagging enthusiasm for the project. Most heartening, from the Kotaku article, is that the problems, development bottlenecks and logjams which blighted the project in 2013 and 2014 now seem to have been cleared. Erin Roberts, who (unlike his brother) remained in the game industry working on the tightly-focused, efficiently-developed Lego video games, is now in charge of several of the more problematic areas of development and a host of ex-CryTek staff have been brought in to work on the tricky engine.

It'll be interesting to see if Star Citizen soars or crashes and burns, especially after the disappointing and controversial No Man's Sky. There's plenty to be hopeful about, not least the fact the the Roberts brothers have a pretty strong track record behind them, and they certainly don't have the normal problem of not enough money. But I think we'll need to some pretty solid releases next year of more playable material or even the entire Squadron 42 game so fans can continuing keeping faith with the project and taking it all the way to release.

Sony confirm a DARK TOWER TV series is in the works

Sony Pictures have confirmed that they are moving ahead with a Dark Tower spin-off TV series which will be heavily connected to their forthcoming film.

The film, starring Idris Elba as Roland and Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black, will be released in February 2017 and will serve as the intro to a series of movies acting as both a sequel to and retelling of the story in Stephen King's eight-volume novel series. The TV series will serve as a prequel to the movies and books both, directly adapting Wizard and Glass (the fourth volume in the books) and drawing on backstory elements established in The Gunslinger.

Using a combination of TV and film to tell the massive story of The Dark Tower was part of the original plan when the project was at Warner Brothers and HBO under Ron Howard's guidance. However, when that fell through due to cost Sony decided it only wanted to make the first film and see how it did before committing to more. With shooting of the movie wrapped up and post-production now underway, Sony now appear to be much more confident in the property and have greenlit the TV series, which will consist of 10-13 episodes with film director Nikolaj Arcel and screenwriters Anders Thomas Jensen and possibly Akiva Goldsman involved in writing the episodes. Ron Howard remains a producer, but likely in a hands-off role.

Sony have also released a map of the lands that will be visited in the Dark Tower TV series.

Most intriguingly, Idris Elba will reprise his role as Roland, along with Tom Taylor as Jake, in the TV series, but only in framing sequences set in the present-day. A younger actor will be cast in the role of teenage Roland.

The Dark Tower TV series will shoot in 2017 and air in 2018. No TV network is yet attached.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Genre television crushes the Emmy Awards

This week the Emmy Awards aired in the United States. For the first time, science fiction and fantasy shows completely dominated the presentation, taking all of the major drama category awards.

Tatiana Maslany won the Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her role playing five regular characters (and many more guest characters) on clone drama Orphan Black.

This is a far cry from a few years ago when genre shows had a hard time getting any respect or traction. The Twilight Zone won a couple of awards back in the 1960s and the original Star Trek was nominated during its first run, but there was then quite a long dry spell until the 1990s, when Red Dwarf's Gunmen of the Apocalypse won the 1994 award for Best International Comedy Series.

In the early 1990s Star Trek: The Next Generation and Quantum Leap were heavily represented in the Creative Emmies (which reward production achievements, such as special effects) but couldn't get a seat at the main event. This changed in 1994 when Star Trek: The Next Generation was nominated for its final season but did not win.

Greater penetration of the Emmy consciousness took place thanks to The X-Files, which won several creative awards and Best Actress for Gillian Anderson in 1997. Surprisingly, David Duchovny never won for Best Actor and the show as a whole failed to win anything for writing or for Best Drama Series overall. But it opened the door slightly. More successful was Lost, which managed to win for Best Drama Series, Best Direction for its pilot episode and Best Actor for both Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn.

The awards this year went to:
  • Outstanding Drama Series: Game of Thrones
  • Outstanding Television Movie: Sherlock, The Abominable Bride
  • Outstanding Lead Actor (Drama): Rami Malek for Mr. Robot
  • Outstanding Lead Actress (Drama): Tatiana Maslany for Orphan Black
  • Outstanding Direction (Drama): Miguel Sapochnik for Game of Thrones, Battle of the Bastards
  • Outstanding Writing (Drama): David Benioff & D.B. Weiss for Game of Thrones, Battle of the Bastards
It's good to see SFF represented so heavily, and it'll be interesting to see if this trend continues next year when shows like Stranger Things, Luke Cage and American Gods will be eligible and Game of Thrones takes a year off (Season 7 will air too late to be eligible for the 2017 awards).

New RED DWARF episodes start airing tonight

Red Dwarf returns to UK TV screens tonight for its eleventh season, and the first full season in four years.

Red Dwarf is the world's longest-running science fiction sitcom, and the longest-running sitcom on British television. Created by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, it aired its first six seasons between 1988 and 1993, before Rob Grant chose to leave to work on other projects and novels. Naylor continued with two additional seasons in 1997 and 1999, although these were patchier and less popular. After a decade spent trying to get a film version launched, the show returned to TV for a mini-series (now retconned as the ninth season) in 2009, which was very poorly received, and a full, tenth season in 2012 which was much more warmly received.

The premise of the series is that Dave Lister, a low-ranking technician on the five-mile-long mining vessel Red Dwarf, is put into stasis as a punishment for smuggling a cat on board. Whilst he's in stasis a lethal radiation leak wipes out the crew and forces the ship's AI, Holly, to take the vessel in to deep space until the radiation danger has passed and Lister can be woken up. Unfortunately, this takes three million years. Upon waking up, Lister discovers the last survivor of a humanoid species that evolved from his cat and a holographic recreation of his officious and pedantic senior officer, Arnold Judas Rimmer. Later on they recover an android from a wrecked starship, the neurotic and borderline insane Kryten. Together, they attempt to survive with no female company and find a way back to Earth.

Early word on the eleventh season - the first episode was aired on streaming services last week as a preview - is that it's also pretty good, continuing an emphasis on the characters and dialogue rather than explosions and effects (a criticism levelled at Seasons 7 and 8). Encouragingly, Season 12 has already been filmed and will air next year.

Red Dwarf's eleventh season starts airing tonight at 9pm on British cable channel Dave.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Night Without Stars by Peter F. Hamilton

Two hundred and fifty years ago, the planet Bienvenido was expelled from the Void, ending up orbiting a lonely star in intergalactic space, 23 million light-years from the Milky Way galaxy. The people of Bienvendio lost their Void-imbued telepathic powers but regained the ability to develop technology. They now go into battle against the alien Fallers using jet aircraft and primitive space rockets. And they are still, gradually, losing the war. The arrival of a child from the Commonwealth acts as a catalyst for the final showdown between humans and Fallers, a battle that the humans cannot afford to lose.

Night Without Stars is a more momentous book than it first appears. It's the second half of the Chronicle of the Fallers duology which began with The Abyss Beyond Dreams, but it's also the eighth and - reportedly - concluding novel set in the Commonwealth universe. Hamilton kicked off this setting with 2002's stand-alone, near-future novel Misspent Youth before taking it into far-future space opera territory with the excellent Pandora's Star. Night Without Stars draws an end to this sequence of books, which is both a cause for disappointment - it still feels like there's a lot of untapped potential to the setting - and also excitement, as Hamilton will be moving into a new milieu for his next project, a new trilogy.

Night Without Stars is, again, mostly set in Bienvenido, but it's no longer the same planet we saw in Abyss. Being expelled from the Void means that its people can now develop electricity and industry, meaning high-powered machine guns, aircraft, motor vehicles, spacecraft (based on Soyuz space capsules)...and nukes. Unfortunately, it also means losing their telepathic powers which provided a more reliable means of exposing Fallers, hostile aliens able to mimic human form. Although the better technology makes it easier to eliminate the Fallers when they are found and to destroy their orbiting spacecraft, it cannot do anything to expose the Faller nests on the planet itself and the Faller numbers are multiplying.

As is his wont, Hamilton sets up an enormous, complicated and multi-stranded storyline and a large cast of characters and then orchestrates events like Napoleon sending troops into battle. We flip between different locations, characters and events with rapid and enviable ease, the plot building up an irresistible momentum in the process. Hamilton's characters are fairly standard archetypes and that continues here, with no major breakout personalities like the irrepressible Paula Myo (who still manages to check in, despite being 23 million light-years from where the action is), but they're a likable bunch: the back-country isolationist warden who inadvertently is given guardianship of the most important item on the planet; the gung-ho astronaut whose curiosity gets the better of him; and one of the survivors from the previous novel who is functionally immortal and indestructible, but finds that is no help whatsoever in solving the Faller crisis once and for all.

Just as The Abyss Beyond Dreams melded hard, posthuman SF with steampunk, so Night Without Stars switches things up by introducing historical elements. Bienvenido's technology has reached the level of the 1950s or 1960s, which is a big improvement on where they were but still not good enough to stop the alien menace, putting our Commonwealth-born heroes used to instant teleportation and traversing the galaxy in weeks on the back foot. There's also the problem that Bienvendio's government is an effective dictatorship, but Hamilton clearly had his fill of ideological battles in the previous novel. This time around there are musings on whether the planet could survive as a democracy given the overwhelming threat of the Fallers, but overall there is less of a political bent to this novel than the previous one.

Where there is a tremendous, relentless sense of pace. The novel takes place in a period of about four weeks and once it gets going in the first few pages, it just does not stop. Catastrophes multiply, pages fly past and the book become fiendishly addictive. This is typical of Hamilton and if Night isn't quite as unputdownable as his finest novels - The Reality Dysfunction and Pandora's Star - it's still nipping at their heels. This is a 700-page hardcover novel that feels as tightly-paced and immaculately-structured as the finest 300-page thriller.

Some weaknesses do creep in. There is the feeling that the Fallers could really have won the conflict at almost any time since the events of Abyss and the timing of events is a little on the convenient side. There's also the sheer number of flukes of good luck our heroes have in finding a final solution to the crisis. The fact that our Commonwealth characters are functionally immortal - if they failed and all died then they would be re-lifed at some future point - does also remove some tension from proceedings even if human immortality is a core feature of the setting. Finally, the chapters set back in the Commonwealth feel like a slight indulgence. Understandably so, if this is indeed the final Commonwealth novel, but characters from as far back as Misspent Youth showing up does feel a little random without this knowledge. More seriously, it feels like the Commonwealth has become as immortal and unbeatable as Iain M. Banks's Culture at this point, and a bit more of an interrogation of the society's problems would be interesting beyond the occasional character musing it can be a bit boring.

But ultimately Night Without Stars (****½) is standard and classic Peter F. Hamilton: bursting at the seams with good ideas, unfolding with a relentless and unstoppable pace, and it's just a tremendously fun and smart piece of SF. The novel will be released next week in both the UK and USA.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Wertzone Classics: Dungeon Keeper

Brave heroes are called forth to invade the nightmarish underground world and challenge the foul beasts and their dark keepers who are threatening to overrun the world. However, you are one of those keepers. Starting from humble beginnings with only a few imps to command, you must build an underground dungeon full of the finest training rooms, magical libraries, lairs and food sources. You must recruit an army of monstrous foes and then unleash them on rival keepers and heroes alike. You have to conquer and desecrate the world. It's good to be bad.

Dungeon Keeper was originally released in 1997 as by the legendary Bullfrog Studios. Over the course of a decade they released some of the finest video games ever made: Populous, Powermonger, Theme Park, Syndicate, Magic Carpet and Theme Hospital. Of those games, Dungeon Keeper holds a strong claim to being the best.

For a twenty-year-old game, Dungeon Keeper is surprisingly fresh and accessible. Bullfrog were one of the first game studios to pour a lot of time and thought into user interfaces, how to make controls as instinctive as possible. Although Dungeon Keeper has some odd quirks (you can't zoom with the mouse wheel, for example) its interface is mostly instinctive and easy to use even today. Do remember to hit Alt-R on starting a game to switch to high-resolution mode, otherwise controlling it can be a pain.

You start each level with a few imps, who are the workhorses of your dungeon. You can get them to tunnel out new rooms (you can decide how big they are, with the limitations of geography), claim new territory, strengthen walls, mine gold and generally act as gophers. As you build rooms, this attracts the attention of passing creatures, who arrive and set up home. They need a lair to live in, a hatchery to feed on, a training room to level up for combat and so on. Some creatures - like flies and orcs - are generalists who are mostly good for combat. Others have speciality skils: trolls can be put to work in the workshop churning out traps and obstacles. Warlocks and dragons are magical creatures who can research new spells in the library. Dark mistresses are canny warriors, but have to be kept "entertained" in the torture chamber. Vampires and skeletons are useful, but cannot be recruited: you have to bury enemy bodies in the graveyard and wait for them to rise, or starve them to death in the prison first. The game's tone is dark, but also extremely humourous with some very amusing sound effects and animations.

The game is interesting for its non-direct controls. You can give orders to creatures (mainly by picking them up and dropping them in the room you want them to work in, or near the enemies you want them to fight) but whether they obey or not is based on how happy you've kept them in their dungeon home, if you've given them enough time to eat and rest as well as training or doing stuff. Unhappy creatures will leave the dungeon, but happy ones will stay and level up, becoming tougher and more powerful. Your opponents - either rival keepers with their own armies or invading heroes from the surface - are often quite powerful so maintaining a balance between training creatures up to toughen them and having them work to improve your dungeon infrastructure is critical. The relatively limited number of creatures and tactics means that there isn't too much tedious micromanagement, however, and Dungeon Keeper is a surprisingly fast game. The very longest, toughest levels won't take more than an hour at the most.

As the game progresses, it introduces new features. Traps such as gas mines and Indiana Jones-style runaway giant balls can be great force-equalisers on levels with relatively few creatures to recruit. Infinite gemstone mines, which can generate a steady (but not rapid) stream of gold, can help prevent the need for dangerous over-expansion in early parts of the level. Bile demons and dragons are formidable creatures but need to be kept happy a bit more than most of your creatures. The escalation in difficulty is steady but not too onerous (if you want a real challenge try the Deeper Dungeons expansion included in most editions of the game, which will have you weeping in frustration).

The result is a compelling, enjoyable game that takes a fairly small number of assets, ideas and creatures and spins them into a gradually escalating challenge. The story and character elements are slight, but for sheer gameplay Dungeon Keeper is almost unbeatable. It's a rich and enjoyable experience that will make you think and laugh at the same time. Weaknesses? There isn't a huge amount of variety in the actual level design (one underground dungeon looks much like another) and, very occasionally, the game is a little obtuse in how it operates (letting you know you can blast enemies with spells in the combat summary panel as well as the map would have been quite handy).

Dungeon Keeper (*****) is a phenomenally playable game which has withstood the test of time brilliantly. It is available now, with the Deeper Dungeons expansion included, from GOG.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Sense8: Season 1

A woman named Angelica kills herself in a derelict church in Chicago. She dies alone, but the moment of her death is imprinted in the minds of eight other people in different parts of the world: Riley, Will, Sun, Capheus, Wolfgang, Kala, Lito and Nomi. From that moment onwards, those eight people can touch each other's minds, see through their eyes, talk and share their skills and abilities. They have become sensates, eight who can act as one, the result of a different strand of human evolution. But their skills and abilities are jealously desired by a mysterious organisation and the man - known only as "Whispers" - they send to find them.

Sense8 is a bewilderingly original, maddening, confusing TV show, refusing to stay still and be pinned down. One second it's a melodramatic Mexican telenovella starring a handsome action hero living in the closet. The next it's a brooding, gritty Berlin crime drama. Then it morphs into the story of an Icelandic DJ living in London trying to find herself, but denying the secrets of her past in Reykjavik. The next episode might explore transgender identity issues, the next might delve into the story of family and religious life for a young female scientist living in Mumbai. One key storyline focuses on corporate drama in a South Korean business that segues into a Seoul prison drama. Another is a comedy about a cheerful Kenyan man who drives people around Nairobi in his Jean-Claude Van Damme-themed bus...which takes a darker turn when he invokes the ire of the city's gangs. Finally, it's a modern Chicago cop drama musing on race relations and family struggles, right up to the point our cop hero runs into another sensate.

At its heart, Sense8 is a show about empathy. The ability to step into another human being's shoes, imagine what their life is like and try to relate to them emotionally as well as intellectually, is a vital part of what makes us human. It's a vital tool for writers and journalists. Empathy is vital for humans to coexist with one another and understand each other's place in the world. The denial of empathy, the reduction of other people, other cultures, entire other strands of humanity to cliches, to generalisations and to "the other" is to deny their humanity and justify the worst excesses of crime, war and bigotry.

Although a quintessential part of humanity, it's also a nebulous concept to build a TV drama around. J. Michael Straczynski tried once before in his epic mid-1990s space opera series Babylon 5. A subplot explored the lives of telepaths, people who can touch each other's minds and live each other's lives, engaging in an exchange of thoughts, ideas and emotions that "mundanes" could never understand. It was a thoroughly intriguing idea, but one that had to jostle for attention alongside other stories involving war, religion and space-going teddy bears (long story). Straczynski clearly wanted to do more with it, at one time planning a feature film spin-off focusing on the concept, but it was never made.

A meeting with the Wachowskis, who at the time were fresh off their own movie about human lives touching and affecting one another across time and space (Cloud Atlas), led to the development of Sense8. The writers wanted to create an epic show exploring empathy, diversity, emotion and the truth of what makes people people, their joys, their fears, their loves and their prejudices. It was a tall order, but you're never going to accuse the creators of The Matrix trilogy and Babylon 5 of lacking vision or ambition.

Sense8 is mostly successful, although given there's never been anything quite like it before it's hard to come up with a metric to measure it by. Possibly the closest touchstone is Lost, particularly its structure and construction as it builds up the story of eight main characters (and several supporting ones) in tremendous depth and detail, often employing flashbacks and thematic devices so we get to know them better. The presence of Lost actor Naveen Andrews may be a nod to that inspiration (Straczynski was a fan of Lost, as the producers of Lost were big fans of Babylon 5). However, the central mystery in Sense8 is nowhere near as all-encompassing as Lost's, or Babylon 5's for that matter. Sense8 is the product of an older and more mature writer, with Straczynski employing surprising restraint in his storytelling. The show's mythology and main story arc are fairly low-key until the last two episodes, with most of the season's twelve episodes instead focusing on each character and the local struggles they are facing.

To achieve the authentic tone they wanted, the writer-producers made a decision which I can imagine appealed massively to Netflix's PR department, right up to the point it was costed and the budget presented to them. Usually most "international" shows are filmed in one city, with a mixture of set dressings and CG used to make that city look like another. For example, Lost visited Frankfurt, Seoul, London, Guam and Sydney whilst almost never stepping foot outside of Hawaii. Sense8 has no truck with that: to film scenes in nine different cities, the production simply filmed in those cities. And yes, this meant the production had to move between San Francisco, Chicago, Mexico City, Reykjavik, London, Berlin, Nairobi, Mumbai and Seoul for real. This immediately adds a huge amount of authenticity to the project. They also timed shoots to coincide with major street festivals and events (such as San Francisco's Pride march and religious celebrations in Mumbai) to add a sense of scale to events. They even filmed several live childbirths for one particularly memorable scene in the series. Although they often look expensive, a lot of Netflix's original productions are quite modestly-budgeted. Not so much Sense8. This is a big-budget production that looks like a huge amount has been spent on it, but no so much that they producers can get lazy and rely on effects or explosions to make up for good storytelling.

The one thing Sense 8 had to nail, and nail absolutely correctly, is tonal variation. Sense8 is a comedy; it's a martial arts movie; it's a soap opera; it's (briefly) a Bollywood musical; it's one of those gritty crime dramas that turns into a ludicrous Jason Statham action film halfway through. And it has to be able to move between all of those hats easily without blowing the viewer's sense of disbelief. For this viewer, it worked brilliantly. It even sells the tonal variation by inserting "less serious" characters into other storylines: Wolfgang's hardcore Berlin gangster shtick turns into outright lunatic farce when Mexican action thesp Lito helps out, resulting in a sudden escalation into rocket launchers and comical quips whilst gunning down an improbable number of enemies. Similarly, Lito's story is mostly played for laughs right up until the moment when Wolfgang jumps in to help him in a fistfight, when it suddenly becomes bloodier and more serious. Later on, Lito's difficulties with self-identity and sexuality become emotionally raw and real when transgender hacker Nomi relates the story of her own difficult upbringing and coming to terms with who she wanted to be. In such ways bonds are formed between the characters, initially in pairs and trios, and later on between all of them.

There are several key scenes which help with this, perhaps the best of which is the characters simply sharing a musical karaoke moment together at the end of the fourth episode (yes, you will have 4 Non Blondes "What's Up" rattling around your brain for the next few months as a result). Later on the characters witness the moment of each other's birth (featuring some actual live births filmed for the purpose) as a piano concerto wells up in the background. Another scene has a character evading pursuit with each of the other seven characters jumping into her body and steering her between obstacles using their skills. Another scene has all eight of the sensates coming together in one moment soundtracked by Sigur Ros, because Sigur Ros automatically makes everything awesome. There's another scene in which the gang get their wires crossed when several of them are, er, enjoying amorous moments at the same time. And so forth.

Some of the actors are established faces: Daryl Hannah as Angelica and Naveen Andrews as Jonas are the most immediately recognisable, whilst Doctor Who fans will recognise Freema Agyeman as Nomi's girlfriend Amanita. Agyeman was a reasonably good actress on Doctor Who, but in Sense8 she's an absolute revelation. She has some pretty challenging scenes to handle, but blows each one out of the water.

Of the main cast, Tuppence Middleton brings both street-savvy steel and emotional vulnerability to the role of Riley, whilst Will Gorski does an excellent job as all-American cop Will who rapidly has his horizons expanded. Will and Riley's connection forms both the emotional lynchpin of the season and also results in the actual storyline being pushed along the most, so it's helpful that their chemistry is highly convincing. Wachowski regular Doona Bae is both highly intelligent and adept at violence as Sun, although her character arguably suffers a little in the late season period from only showing up when arse needs to be kicked and disappearing for long stretches (although given her character's circumstance, perhaps that's not too surprising).

Max Riemelt is a well-known and very busy German actor, but I wouldn't be surprised if we saw more of him in English-language productions after Sense8. He is excellent as the safe-cracking, Conan the Barbarian-quoting criminal Wolfgang. Tina Desai is likewise excellent in the role of Kala, although her storyline of family drama feels a little undercooked compared to some of the rest. However, it comes to life later in the season when Hindu religious tensions in Mumbai spill over and her previously underplayed abilities with Science! are called upon to help her fellow sensates.

Ami Ameen brings tremendous, infectious energy and enthusiasm to the story of Capheus, which probably has the widest range of tonal variations. Ameen is excellent. Unfortunately, due to a falling-out between Ameen and the producers, he's been recast for Season 2. Hopefully the new actor will be able to bring a similar level of commitment and passion to the role.

Jamie Clayton - a transgender actress playing a transgender character - is tremendously, emotionally honest and real when playing her character of Nomi, especially touching on storyline and character moments that clearly derive from her real life (something Straczynski, in particular, is renowned for). However, she struggles a little more in her role as a font of exposition. Nomi is the group's resident "hactivist" (groan) and starts accumulating data on what's going on by hacking the bad guys' internets and bringing down their firewalls and doing all that TV hacking stuff. To be fair, it's not actually that bad compared to a lot of shows, but it feels like a bit more authenticity was needed to overcome the IT cliches.

One of the most impressive performances comes from Spanish actor Miguel Angel Silvestre as Lito, the closeted Mexican action hero deeply in love with his boyfriend Hernando (a likewise accomplished performance by Alfonso Herrera) who then reluctantly ends up with a "beard" in the form of fellow performer Daniela (Erendira Ibarra). At first glance Lito's story serves as the comic relief only to take a turn for the more dramatically intense later on. In fact, this is the story that sounds the weakest on paper but on screen ends up being one of the best. It also features a hilarious moment where the Wachowskis completely take the mickey out of their own past work, when it turns out even cheap Mexican action films are still stealing ideas from The Matrix.

The performances, then, are brilliant. The writing is very effective for the most part, moving between genres and tones with accomplished ease. There are some monster action scenes across the season and, without their usual infinite buckets of money and six months of CGI rendering to fall back on, the Wachowskis resort to giving us some in-camera, practical stunts, wire work and gunfights that are more real and convincing than anything they've done since the original Matrix.

Where I think people will fall off or on the Sense8 bandwagon is the pacing and structure. Sense8 is, for most of its first season, almost an anthology show, just with characters from one story able to help out briefly in another. The focus is clearly on each character's own up-front problems in their own immediate vicinity. The story of what is going on with the sensates, why they can do what they do and who is trying to capture them unfolds very, very slowly in the background and occasional moments of rising to the fore. This slow-burning fuse to the story can be frustrating, but only if you view the series through the prism of "What is the answer to this mystery?" If, on the other hand, you engage with the characters it's not a problem. Viewer patience is eventually rewarded in the final two episodes of the season when the ongoing mystery explodes into prominence, a very nice car is set on fire and two of the sensates finally actually meet for real.

Other problems? Er, the main title sequence and music are both pretty underwhelming, which is odd as Netflix actually had a great potential one they used in their trailers (the one set to Weshley Arms's cover of "Need You Tonight") and the rest of the soundtrack is pretty good. That's about it.

The first season of Sense8 (****½) is messy, weirdly-paced and sometimes misses the profundity it is aiming for to such a degree that it is inadvertently hilarious. It's also phenomenally well-written, often beautifully-directed (this is easily the Wachowskis' best directing job since the first Matrix film) and tremendously human. It's bold, experimental and offbeat in a way that none of Netflix's other shows - no matter how well-made - are, or have even tried to be. Sense8 shoots for the stars and perhaps falls short, but its ambition is breathtaking, its scale epic and its characters both charming and compelling. It is available to watch through Netflix now. Season 2, which is wrapping up production now, will air on Netflix in early 2017.

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

Winter has fallen, bringing a brief respite from the depredations of the Red Ship Raiders. Fitz, returning to Buckkeep from the Mountain Kingdom, finds Prince Verity working hard to build ships and watchtowers to defend the coast, but everywhere the conniving Prince Regal is working to undermine his brother and pave his own way to the throne. When Verity embarks on an ill-advised quest to help save his kingdom, it falls to Fitz to try to hold everything together in his absence.

The middle volume of The Farseer Trilogy is Robin Hobb's attempt to avoid "middle book syndrome", that annoying situation where a book has no real opening or ending. As such, Royal Assassin tries to work as its own self-contained story in the structure of both the larger trilogy and the much larger Realm of the Elderling sequence beyond that.

In this endeavour, the author is mostly successful. Royal Assassin continues the storyline of Assassin's Apprentice, with FitzChivalry Farseer trying to overcome his status as the illegitimate son of a dead prince and a secret assassin to become a respected member of the court. He hopes to woo his childhood love, but King Shrewd wants him to marry for political advantage instead. Regal hopes to undermine and destroy Fitz, but Fitz's willingness to lead from the front and throw himself into battle against the Red Ship Raiders stymies him, as do Fitz's growing magical powers (in both the animalistic Wit and the telepathic Skill) and his canny support of Verity's bride, the Queen-in-Waiting Kettricken. Events boil over at the book's ending, which features a powerfully emotional moment of catharsis (arguably still the highlight of the entire sixteen-volume Elderling series to date) and setting the scene for the final confrontation in Assassin's Quest.

Hobb's facility with prose is enviable, creating a rich and engrossing fantasy world. Things may not move too far from the medieval fantasy norm and some of the worldbuilding doesn't entirely ring true (such as the vast size of the Six Duchies but the tiny size of its settlements and its apparently extremely low population), but for the most part the world of the Six Duchies is vividly and memorably portrayed. Her facility for characterisation also remains intact, with Kettricken, Patience, Burrich, Molly and Nighteyes all being well-drawn and convincing characters as well as Fitz himself.

Fitz has always been a problem for some readers, especially since the trilogy is told in the first person from his perspective. In the first volume Fitz was a little too passive and reactive and that problem persists into this second volume. However, in the latter half of Royal Assassin he does become more proactive in opposing Regal's plans. He even engages in some very mild political intrigue. It's no A Game of Thrones, but it does up the stakes a little at a key moment of the story.

Some of Hobb's key weaknesses as a writer do re-emerge in this volume, however. Her ability to conjure up the unfairness of life and the mountain of problems Fitz must struggle to overcome is remarkable, but there is also chapter after chapter where Fitz stews in the alleged utter misery of his life - as a favoured servant and assassin with a cool telepathic wolf companion and a beautiful, strong-willed girlfriend who loves him absolutely - whilst not really doing anything. It's still not as much of a problem as in later novels, but there is an interminable middle section to the novel and it feels like a comfortable 200 pages could have been shaved off the page count (already approaching twice the length of Assassin's Apprentice) without too much trouble.

Royal Assassin (****) is a bigger novel than its forebear and one with more political intrigue and action, at land and at sea. However, it's also overlong and suffers the same issues as its forebear but stretched over a longer page count: a plot that kicks into gear only intermittently and a protagonist too reactive for his own good. But Hobb's skills with character and emotion, and evoking her world in rich detail, continue to prove remarkable. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY debut delayed until May 2017

Taking the top prize for "least surprising news of the year", CBS have announced that Star Trek: Discovery's premiere date is going to be delayed from January until May next year.

Given they haven't announced any casting or started shooting yet, and showrunner Bryan Fuller is still wrapping up work on his other show, American Gods, the January date was more than slightly ambitious.

Star Trek: Discovery takes place ten years before the events of The Original Series and revolves around a new cast of characters on board the USS Discovery. The first season will consist of a 13-part, tightly serialised story. The series will air on CBS All Access in the United States, SPACE in Canada and Netflix in most of the rest of the world.