Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Sunday, 25 February 2018

Hard West

The American West, 19th Century. A series of strange events is unfolding. Organ-stealing doctors, masked bandits empowered by Mexican mysticism, the walking dead and even Death himself are on the prowl. A number of people find themselves crossing paths with the Weird West, and not all will survive the experience.



Hard West is a turn-based tactics video game from CreativeForge Games, in which you guide your posse of between 1 and 4 characters through a supernatural version of the American West. It would feel lazy to simply say it's "XCOM meets Deadlands", which is a problem since it pretty much exactly XCOM meets Deadlands. If you're a fan of those games and settings, this should already have sold itself to you. If not, a further explanation follows.

Hard West is divided into two game modes. There is an overland map of a territory or region, divided into several areas of interest. You can direct your posse to visit these areas. You can engage in trade in towns and at markets. Other areas will present you with Oregon Trail-like strategic decisions which may yield rewards (equipment, guns, special ability cards, money or supplies) or disadvantages (such as injuries or having items stolen). Some areas will result in combat, at which point the game switches to a colourful 3D map. You guide your characters across this map in a manner identical to XCOM: you can carry out two actions, such as moving twice, moving and shooting or reloading a weapon and using a special ability. Your characters can take cover behind obstacles and are either in half-cover or full cover depending on the type of scenery available, which reduces damage.

In a highly interesting move, the game doesn't use random number generators to determine the enemy's chance to hit. Instead your characters have a second numerical value (as well as health), called Luck. Shots that would hit you can instead be deflected if you have a high enough luck, whilst special abilities can be triggered if you have a high enough luck score. Taking a hit and surviving replenishes your luck, and certain consumables can also restore it.

The game's combat mode is outstanding. The maps are varied and interesting, each one hand-crafted (there is no random map generations as in XCOM2) to provide the maximum amount of satisfying terrain for a fierce firefight. Guns are solid and chunky, with some nice variety in rifles for long-range combat, shotguns for close-up work and pistols for everything between. There is also scope for using grenades (in the game's parlance, nail bombs), although they play a considerably less important role than in XCOM. There is a bit of a learning curve as you adjust to how the came calculates chances to hit: this takes into account enemy character's Luck score, meaning you'll sometimes have only a 30% chance of hitting someone right in front of which which feels weird, but then they have the same disability with regards to hitting you. The game gives more options for flanking an enemy and hitting them from other directions than XCOM, and there is a distinct lack of destructible scenery which makes the game feel less dynamic than XCOM (where you can gradually destroy the entire map over the course of a battle) but also tenser.

The battle mode does have a couple of drawbacks. The stealth mode is undercooked and unnecessary (running in all guns blazing is always more time-efficient), and the lack of an Overwatch mechanic can be frustrating. This is exemplified by the fact that enemies have an area of control around them: step into this area (such as trying to get up close for a pointblank shot) and they will shoot you automatically. Annoyingly, your characters don't have the same ability and can be outflanked and attacked pointblank at will, which feels unfair. Still, given most combat takes place at range, this is rarely a major problem.


Before each battle you have the ability to customise your posse. You can decide what guns they can take into battle and what consumables they can stock up on (doctor's kits and healing elixirs are a must, along with wearable items which can give you more movement points or a bonus to Luck or Health). Most intriguing is the game's skill system, which takes the form of a deck of playing cards. You can give these cards to your posse to unlock special abilities, such as the ability to heal naturally out of sunlight, kill an enemy hiding in the shadows or to fire a snapshot at every enemy in view. If you combine cards in poker hands (flushes, two-of-a-kind etc), you unlock secondary, passive abilities. This is a clever, fun way of giving your characters crucial edges in combat.

The out-of-combat map stuff is also fun, but extremely thin compared to XCOMs Geoscape mode. The Oregon Trail/Banner Saga-style moral choices are interesting, but you're not usually given enough information or context to know when to make a gamble and when to be conservative and back off, which can frustrating. What does make this mode work is its brevity: Hard West is divided into eight scenarios (and a ninth in the expansion, Scars of Freedom, which is included with most modern editions of the game), each of which takes around 2 hours max to complete. Each one of the overworld map campaigns has a different focus and mechanics. One has you shepherding a group of civilians to safety, another has you racing a clock with dwindling supplies and another has a new mechanic based around genetic engineering and replacing body parts. Switching gears every couple of hours through the game helps keep things fresh and ticking over.

Storyline wise, the game's scenarios together build up an over-arcing narrative about a man cursed by Death as a young man and the various characters he bumps into along the way. Eventually these matters culminate in a grand showdown campaign where you have to assemble the various heroes and villains into a big posse to invade Purgatory itself. It's all a bit silly and fun, although the going can be overly grim at times. The game could do with some lightening up at times. The storyline is also interesting, but not tremendously coherent, as the ability to play the campaigns in (almost) any order you want means that long, long periods of time can elapse between important narrative beats. The expansion campaign, Scars of Freedom, is completely unrelated to that in the main game and also has no setup or explanation. It's not too hard to catch up on what's going on but it's a bit weird to say the least.

The core of Hard West is the turn-based combat and this is highly satisfying and addictive. The storyline and campaign mode are a little thin, but do a good job of supporting the turn-based action.

Hard West (****) is available on Steam now and should scratch that XCOM itch for those waiting for Phoenix Point and whatever the future of the XCOM franchise itself holds. In the meantime, CreativeForge Games are working on a new XCOM-alike called Phantom Doctrine which will heavily focus on a stealth approach, with a bigger budget and a more intricate campaign mode.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

The Tick: Season 1

Fifteen years ago, Arthur Everest saw his father killed in front of him by the Terror, a monstrous supervillain. Although the Terror was defeated and apparently killed by the alien Superian ("they even found his teeth!"), Arthur is convinced he faked his death and is lying low. When evidence emerges suggesting that he might be right, Arthur reluctantly teams up up with a new, enigmatic superhero on the scene - the Tick - and the murderous arch-vigilante Overkill to expose and defeat the threat.


There is a man who steps forth when destiny calls, like a great bugle of need. His name is Ben Edlund. Back in the late 1980s he created and wrote the comic book known as The Tick, a firm riposte to the po-faced, self-serious and darkgrim direction comics were taking. In the mid-1990s, when superhero movies and animated series were starting to take off, he created the Tick animated series, once again calling forth the legions of absurdity and satire in a family-friendly format. In 2001 Edlund returned once more with the first Tick live-action TV series, starring noted gravelly-voiced heroman Patrick Warburton, but the time was not yet quite ripe. The show as great, but the live-action audience were not so oversaturated with superheroes that the Tick's job could be done fully.

But now the wheel has turned and once more the Great Blue One has been summoned forth. Our TV schedules are packed with dubious Netflix Marvel shows about increasingly obscure heroes and you can barely leave the cinema about a besuited vigilante before being dragged back inside to watch the next one. The Tick has never been so needed.

Amazon TV has resurrected The Tick as a 12-part live-action series which takes a different tack to its forebears, focusing on Arthur (Griffin Newman) as our gateway character to this insane world, with a story initially focusing on his mental health problems. It's an approach that Tick fans were dubious about in the beginning, but we should have had faith. As well as telling tales of his blue insectoid protagonist, Ben Edlund has spent years in the trenches of genre television, writing many of the finest episodes of Firefly and Angel (he wrote Smile Time for the former and Jaynestown for the latter), as well as penning two dozen episodes of Supernatural and working on both Powers and Gotham. This has given him formidable experience of writing for television. Melding this experience with his signature hero has resulted in possibly the most joyously entertaining season of superhero television since the 1960s version of Batman.

The show stumbles a little in its two opening episodes as Edlund seems to be musing on what kind of show he's making. But by the third episode he has fully committed: The Tick melds the absurd, surreal humour of the animated series with the slightly darker tone of the original comics whilst also taking occasional potshots at the Netflix Marvel and other superhero shows which go in for over-earnest drama and fight scenes. It's almost a live-action cartoon and is gloriously entertaining.

Peter Serafinowicz plays the titular hero (Patrick Warburton chose not to return to act in the role, but instead acts as a producer). The former voice of Darth Maul, Serafinowicz has gained new fame as an impressionist, vocal comedian (responsible for the popular "Sassy Trump" YouTube video series) and collaborator with Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg on projects liked Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, as well as picking up supporting roles in movies like Guardians of the Galaxy. When it was announced that Warburton would not be returning as the title character, many fans were dubious until Serafinowicz was announced as his replacement. Serafinowicz owns every scene he's in, delivering the Tick's off-kilter observations and constant look of amiably bemused befuddlement with commitment. This may be the role he was born to play and he delivers on it in full.

Griffin Newman is a little bit more on edge and harder to like as Arthur, which is a problem as he's our eyes in this bizarre world. But eventually he relaxes, starts actually investigating the problem (rather than assuming he's having a breakdown) and becomes more interesting protagonist. It helps that the cast rapidly expands in size. Valorie Curry proves able support as Arthur's sister, Dot, and Scott Speiser is magnificently cast as Overkill, a hilarious pastiche of the Punisher and Batman who might be the show's best character ("We'll work...near each other." "Do you mean together?" "I WORK ALONE!"). Alan Tudyk also gives a great vocal performance as the voice of the AI controlling Dangerboat, and John Pilcher has a small but memorable role as Dr. Karamazov, a bodily-challenged mad scientist. Townsend Coleman also gives an excellent performance as the voice of Midnight, a talking dog turned author (complete with his own book signing that will have writers everywhere - dogs or otherwise - nodding in sympathetic recognition).

On the side of evil we have Yara Martinez as Elektra-riffing Miss Lint and the mighty mighty Jackie Earle Haley as the Terror. Haley, no stranger to superhero antics after playing Rorschach in the Watchmen movie, gives the performance of his life, riffing on both the Terror's evil and amiable humour with aplomb. Not too bad on the drums either.

The show builds over the course of its 12-episode run (divided into two half-seasons by Amazon, to give us a great mid-season cliffhanger involving, of all things, an Alexa), becoming more absurdist and surreal by the moment. It's hard to know where the show peaks, with Dangerboat's growing unrequited love for Arthur or the arrival of a fedora-wearing robot detective or Brendan Hines' chisel-jawed performance as Superian, a Superman analogue who is far less empathetic, or a chase sequence involving a pram. But The Tick roots its story in Arthur's predicament and his growing confidence and willingness to embrace being a superhero, and follows that throughline - "Destiny calls!" - to a natural conclusion.

The season ends by wrapping up its barmy storyline - in the lengthy exposition sequence Arthur declares the Terror's plan to be the stupidest thing he's ever heard and he isn't wrong - but leaving some plot hooks dangling for the second season. The most obvious is the question of the Tick's origin (although given that the comic book and animated series have both avoided this, don't hold your breath), but there are also hints that the Terror's plan may have had a larger motive behind it, that Arthur's stepfather has a hidden past and that the government superhero monitoring agency, AEGIS, has now taken an interest in our heroes.

The first season of The Tick (****½) is a magnificently absurdist piece of slapstick satire, with many of the best lines on television you will hear this year. It is available to watch on Amazon TV now. A second season will air in 2019.

AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER to be released on Blu-Ray

In extremely pleasant news, Avatar: The Last Airbender, the greatest fantasy TV show of all time*, is getting a snazzy HD re-release for the 10th anniversary of its first run ending.


The show will arrive on Blu-Ray on 1 May in a box set containing all three seasons, as well as some new documentaries, commentaries and an "animated graphic novel" called Escape from the Spirit World. Sadly, a lengthy video featuring M. Night Shyamalan apologising for the Last Airbender live-action movie will not be included.

Avatar's spin-off sequel series, The Legend of Korra, is already available on the format, allowing completionists to assemble the combined seven seasons of the two shows for a complete HD run-through (and hey, remember to throw in the canonical graphic novels as well!)..

* Yes, including that one.

Happy 25th Birthday to BABYLON 5

Twenty-five years ago today, the pilot episode of Babylon 5 aired on US television for the first time. It was the culmination of five years of hard work, as I have detailed here.



Babylon 5 was an important and influential TV show. It was the first network American TV series to have a detailed, pre-planned, multi-year story arc. It eschewed the normal format of episodic television to deliver an epic, massive saga, told over five years and 110 stories that cumulatively tell one story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Although several writers contributed to the show - including veterans of the original 1960s Star Trek and even Neil Gaiman - it was largely the work of one man, J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote 91 of the 110 episodes (including the entire third and fourth seasons), plus the pilot and a further six TV movies. It certainly wasn't auteur television but in terms of being the creative vision of one showrunner who was responsible for the direction of the series, it helped consolidate a trend (previously hinted at by Stephen Bochco and David Lynch) that is in full flow in television culture today.

Babylon 5 is the story of the titular space station, a five-mile-long trade hub and diplomatic gathering place functioning as an interstellar United Nations. Five major powers - the Earth Alliance, Centauri Republic, Narn Regime, Minbari Federation and Vorlon Empire - and two dozen or so lesser ones (the League of Non-aligned Worlds) have come together to help keep the peace and facilitate interstellar commerce and diplomacy. It's revealed early on that the human race and the Minbari fought a devastating war that ended with the Minbari battle fleet closing in on a barely-defended Earth, only to mysteriously abandon the campaign and leave. It's regarded as an act of mercy by a more powerful and advanced race towards a lesser one...apart from by the station commander, Jeffrey Sinclair, who has no memory of the final 24 hours of the war, and was bizarrely chosen to command the station over a dozen more experienced officers.


Over the course of the first season, the show focused on crisis-of-the-week storylines, such as the station dockers going on strike after Earth refuses to pay for more advanced and safer equipment after a horrendous accident kills several workers, and also on a series of longer-running mysteries. Sinclair's missing memories (which gradually start to return) is the most prominent of these, but there are also the military provocations by the resurgent and belligerent Narn Regime against their former conquerors, the Centauri, which infuriate the proud Centauri Ambassador, Londo, whose constant plans to stymie the Narn are frustrated by what he considers to be a cowardly government...until he is offered a deal with the devil that rapidly spirals out of control. Other storylines are more mundane, such as Security Chief Garibaldi's constant struggles to stay sober and first officer Ivanova's constantly painful family and love life. In Season 2 the show unexpectedly has the Babylon Project's mission of peace ending as two of the major powers go to war, manipulated by shadowy forces behind the scenes. Later seasons see the outbreak of a massive galaxy-spanning conflict, with the station's crew going from bureaucrats and pen-pushers to big damn heroes, doing whatever it takes to make sure they and their homeworlds survive.

Babylon 5 is unapologetically big, brash and fun space opera, but layered inside it are many other stories, some of them comic, some of them desperately tragic. The cast of characters (regular and recurring) is huge, most of them well-played and given often joyously brilliant dialogue to play around with. Babylon 5 can also be a satire, particularly of the American Dream and how easy it is for democracy to be subverted into fascism. Babylon 5 is also a great tribute to many other works of science fiction, name-checking authors like Isaac Asimov and Alfred Bester and employing Harlan Ellison, David Gerrold and Neil Gaiman directly as writers. Babylon 5 is noteworthy for winning the Hugo Award for Dramatic Presentation twice, back-to-back, at a time when the award was still given to both TV shows and movies.


Babylon 5 also broke the mould in its ground-breaking use of CGI for visual effects, being way ahead of the curve in the use of computers to do what only models had done up to that point. It was also influential in how it was shot and filmed on an incredibly tight budget, becoming one of the most critically-acclaimed SF shows on-air despite having a budget roughly one-third that of the Star Trek series airing at the same time.

Babylon 5 was far from perfect. There are quite a few weak episodes, most of them in the first and fifth seasons, and there were frequently cheesy lines or slightly awkward exposition scenes. Several times the carefully-planned storyline was thrown for a loop by an actor quitting the show unexpectedly, leading to some course-correcting. But each time, Straczynski and his team righted the boat and got the show back on course.


The influence of the show is tremendous. Joss Whedon watched and enjoyed the show, and made the character of Xander on his Buffy the Vampire Slayer series a Babylon 5 fan (he even had the collector's plates!), as well as drawing on some of the show's structural ideas for his own shows. Firefly's use of actual Newtonian physics in space can also be seen as a nod to B5, which pioneered the idea. Damon Lindelof was also a big fan, citing Babylon 5 as a major structural influence on Lost. George R.R. Martin, an old sparring partner of Straczynski's from the SF convention scene, was an appreciator of the show. Daniel Abraham drew on the show for ideas for his Dagger and the Coin fantasy series (which also mixes politics, military action and economics alongside the return of an ancient, spider-like force). The Wachowskis were also big fans of the show, and later worked with Straczynski on the Netflix series Sense8.

Happy 25th Birthday, Babylon 5. Possibly no other series - book or TV - has had such an important impact on myself and my appreciation for writing and scriptwriting. It may also hold a special place in the pantheon of TV series, even today in the so-called "Golden Age of Television." There are shows since B5 aired that had better effects and better individual episode scripts but none (maybe excepting - and maybe only excepting - The Wire) have executed a multi-season, multi-character storyline on such a scale anywhere near as successfully. For that reason, it is a show that must be respected and given its due.

Just a reminder that I am also currently engaged in the great Babylon 5 Rewatch Project, which is approaching the end of Season 4.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Mute

Mute is the story of an Amish-raised (but not devout) man who can't speak and who can't use technology who has to find his girlfriend when she vanishes into the crazy brashness of mid-21st Century Berlin, which requires him to make a journey through the seedy underbelly of a city riven by crime.


Mute is also the story of two ex-US soldiers, both adversely affected by their tours of duty in the Afghanistan (in a war now in its fifth decade with no sign of ending), who team up in the Berlin underworld, one for the money and one in the hope of making a better life for himself and his daughter, but can't help falling prey to their worst instincts.

There are two potentially interesting stories here around which you could build effective movies. Director Duncan Jones appears to, at one point or another, decided to mash them together into one film which is at tremendous mistake. Mute is a movie that is somewhat less than the some of its parts.

It's impossible to dismiss the feeling that Duncan Jones's career hasn't gone quite the way it should. He started out with the excellent Moon (which occurs in the same universe as Mute, although this is in no way relevant to the plot), before moving onto the entertaining Source Code. His third movie was the insaneo-budgeted WarCraft which was, although by no means a complete disaster, not the break-out, effects-driven hit he needed either. He's now gone back to his (relatively) low-budget roots with Mute, a film which he's been planning to make for over a decade, at one point conceiving it as a Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels-style Mockney comedy-thriller before deciding (somewhat randomly) to turn it into a Blade Runner homage and introducing a love story, a mute lead and a missing persons, noir thriller plot.

To say these two plots are a tonal mismatch is an understatement. Alexander Skarsgard plays our non-speaking protagonist Leo with a lot of intensity, putting to use the years of brooding he finely honed on True Blood. He makes for an interesting lead you can't help but root for, even if you're not quite sure how he puts together the clues needed to follow his missing girlfriend's trail (or pay his rent or take part in modern society at all) since he refuses to use the internet or own a mobile phone. However, every time his dogged pursuit through Berlin's neon-lit underbelly threatens to become compelling, we cut away to Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck Teddington (Justin Theroux), the American vets whose experiences in Afghanistan have left one a borderline psycho with a Bowie knife obsession and the other one, apparently, with an unhealthy interest in very young girls (which kind of kills any enjoyment you could otherwise get from Theroux's otherwise game performance). Bill and Ted's adventures could have perhaps been more watchable - with less paedophilic overtones and more dark comedy - in a Tarantino kind of way, but the writing doesn't quite snap into life enough to make them interesting protagonists. And even when their storyline does become more intriguing, the camera suddenly cuts away to Leo, who is now doing something completely incongruous from where we left him (like hanging out with a depraved, sex robot-owning Dominic Monaghan or trading punches with Noel Clarke: Mute at least provides gainful employment for actors who were moderately big about ten years ago and have faded from view since then).

It's a bizarre film filled with bizarre characters that doesn't really hang together very well. There's some nice visual effects moments and some entertaining musical homages (Jones's father David gets a few musical shout-outs, and Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" gets a music box cover version because why not), as well a grin-inducing moment when a bunch of what are blatantly cyborgs from classic 1993 cyberpunk game Syndicate (which had a level set in Berlin) show up. Jones's direction is also very effective on a scene-by-scene basis.

Mute (**½) is not without merit and has some outstanding performances, particularly by Paul Rudd who badly needed a role to show him being something other than an amiably goofy nice guy and steals every scene he's in as an unhinged psycho. But overall this is a film that feels like the script needed another two or three passes and a tonal rewrite before it was ready for the screen. Every time the movie does something that makes you really like it, it delivers another moment that makes you groan with embarrassment. But as a failure, it's still an interesting one. Mute is on global release via Netflix right now.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

(Very Strong) Rumour: Amazon developing the WHEEL OF TIME TV series

According to Deadline, Amazon is the company that has been secretly developing the Wheel of Time TV series alongside Sony for the last few months.


Amazon had previously been strongly linked to the Wheel of Time deal prior to their acquisition of the Lord of the Rings TV prequel rights. It was assumed that Amazon would not be interested in developing two epic fantasy shows simultaneously. Since then, they've also announced that they are developing a Conan the Barbarian TV project and are moving forwards with TV adaptations of Larry Niven's Ringworld, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and Iain M. Banks' Consider Phlebas. Amazon are not short of money and the company's owner, Jeff Bezos, is a known SFF fan with very, very deep pockets.

Recently there has been forwards movement on the project: the Sony-appointed showrunner Rafe Judkins has tweeted he is in full writing mode on the script and producers Radar Pictures have been gearing up for an announcement (the massive success of their movie Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle meaning that some of their other projects are moving forwards).

A formal confirmation of the news is still awaited, although at this point Amazon is considered the front-runner for developing the series (with the small possibility of Apple TV, CBS All Access or maybe the new Disney streaming service sweeping it up) and it'd be surprising if it went anywhere else.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Alternate ending to QUANTUM LEAP discovered

Twenty-five years ago this May, the time travel drama TV series Quantum Leap ended. Starring Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell, the show ran for five seasons and followed the adventures of Dr. Sam Beckett, the inventor of the "Quantum Leap Accelerator". Beckett is stuck leaping from person to person through time, putting right what previously went wrong, solving crimes, helping broken romances etc. It was a very popular, feel-good show.


Or at least it was until it's finale. Mirror Image was a strange episode where Sam leaped into a small American town on the very day of his birth. He met a barkeeper played by an actor who'd been in the very first episode, with the suggestion that both may be a manifestation of "god, fate, time or whatever", and this force had been responsible for Sam's leaps through time. At the end of the episode Sam discovers that he has always had the power to return home, he just chose not to because there were still people to help. In his final leap, Sam sets his friend Al's life to rights, making sure the woman who'd left him because she believed he'd died in Vietnam (instead of being made a POW) knew that Al was safe and coming home. A final title card revealed that, "Dr. Sam Beckett never returned home."

It was a contentious and slightly odd ending, especially because the cancellation of Quantum Leap had come about fairly late in the day, so the finale was a recutting of what had originally been planned to be merely a season cliffhanger (if a far more dramatic one than any before it). Creator Donald P. Bellisario has been tight-lipped about how the story would have continued in a sixth season, but rumours have abounded of a different ending that was filmed and then cut.

A full quarter of a century years later, it's been revealed that there was indeed an alternate ending filmed. Quantum Leap fan Allison Pregler bought some negative from publicity shots for the series via eBay and discovered some odd images that she didn't recognise from any episode. It was only after looking at them closely she realised they came from the much-rumoured alternate cut.

In this scene, we discover that Sam did indeed change history so that Beth waited for Al, they got married and lived very happily together for thirty years. We also discover that Al had still joined Project Quantum Leap, still met Sam and still been his Observer through all his adventures (making fans everywhere breath a sigh of relief). We discover that Sam has vanished without a trace after his last adventure went as normal. The scene ends with Beth convincing Al to go into the Accelerator himself and jump in search of Sam. This, presumably, would have been the premise for the sixth season, with Al physically joining Sam in his adventures through time.

It's great to find these questions that fans have been asking for 25 years have been answered, and will no doubt fuel speculation that the show could either be rebooted or even continued directly (as both Bakula and Stockwell are still with us and acting frequently) in the future.

Amazon developing Iain M. Banks' CULTURE novels as a television series

In a surprise announcement, Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, has personally confirmed that his company is developing Iain M. Banks' Culture series of science fiction novels as a television series. The series will open with an adaptation of the first novel in the series, Consider Phlebas.


Originally published in 1987, Consider Phlebas introduces the Culture, a hyper-advanced, post-scarcity civilisation which appears to be a utopia. However, the existence of the Culture is dependent on the incredibly sophisticated AIs known as Minds, which control most of the Culture's ships and space habitats, and also on the existence of Special Circumstances, an elite intelligence agency which intervenes on other worlds to stop them developing into a threat against the Culture (or the rest of the galaxy). Consider Phlebas is set during a brutal war between the Culture and the Idiran Empire and follows the misadventures of the central character, Horza, a mercenary hired by the Idirans to recover an imprisoned Mind from a distant planet.

Banks published nine novels and a short story collection set in the Culture before his untimely death from terminal cancer in 2013. The novels were immensely critically-acclaimed and sold well. Banks also published three SF novels not related to the Culture and fourteen "mainstream" novels (Banks published SF under the name "Iain M. Banks" and non-SF as "Iain Banks"), three of which - The Crow Road, Complicity and Stonemouth - have been adapted for the screen.

The Culture novels have been hugely influential, with Banks regularly acclaimed as the greatest British SF author of his age. The Culture Orbitals - massive, ring-shaped artificial planets (theselves a more plausible iteration of Larry Niven's Ringworld concept) - are one of the main influences and inspirations for the Halo series of video games. Elon Musk has also cited Banks as a literary hero, even naming two of his drone ships after Minds from the books. Bezos himself is also a major fan.

Dennis Kelly, the acclaimed showrunner of Utopia, is developing the new series, which apparently is guaranteed a direct series order if the scripts impress.

Amazon is on a bit of a roll recently, having also greenlit new TV series based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian character.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Pre-production begins on the HIS DARK MATERIALS TV series

Bad Wolf Productions today confirmed that shooting is complete on their first project, a TV version of Deborah Harkess's novel A Discovery of Witches for Sky TV, which is interesting in itself. However, more exciting for many will be the news that Bad Wolf are rolling straight into working on their TV version of His Dark Materials, the Philip Pullman novel series.


His Dark Materials consists of the novels Northern Lights (retitled The Golden Compass in the United States for no immediately discernible reason), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. One of the biggest-selling YA fantasy series of all time, it's also controversial (mostly in the US) for its depiction of religion and criticism of dogma and fundamentalism. A previous attempt to adapt the series with a movie version of The Golden Compass in 2007 was a box office disappointment.

Writer Jack Thorne is working on the new version, which will adapt the three books as five eight-episode seasons. The BBC is funding and co-developing the project with Bad Wolf, New Line and Warner Brothers. Bad Wolf also has an American co-development deal with HBO (they are collaborating on Industry, a drama about the global financial crisis) which may see the show end up on HBO in the US, although this has not been confirmed.

Bad Wolf are also developing a TV series based on Bernard Cornwell's fantastic Warlord Chronicles novel trilogy, although it sounds like this may be on the backburner for now.

His Dark Materials will probably air in late 2019 or early 2020, assuming that they start shooting this year.