Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Saturday, 17 February 2018

DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS movie switches studios, gets a 2021 release date

The long-running saga of the Dungeons and Dragons movie has taken another twist.

After a lengthy and curious legal battle between Universal and Warner Brothers, the latter emerged with the rights to develop a D&D movie back in 2016. The project was fast-tracked, with Rob Letterman (Gulliver's Travels, Goosebumps, Detective Pikachu) hired to direct and Ansel Elgort (Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, Baby Driver) in talks to star. The movie was going to be set in the Forgotten Realms world, specifically the city of Waterdeep and the Yawning Portal Inn, including its secret entrance to the vast subterranean dungeon of Undermountain.

However, things have changed rapidly in the last few months. Warner Brothers' option expired and Hasbro gained full control of the D&D movie rights (for the first time; the previous film rights were sold before Hasbro's acquisition of D&D owners Wizards of the Coast, to their displeasure). They have now teamed up with Paramount to develop the movie project instead. Paramount and Hasbro have developed a close working relationship together over the course of five successful Transformers movies and two successful G.I. Joe pictures.

It is unclear if Letterman and Elgort are still in the frame for the movie and how much of the previous concept will be retained, but it does now at least have a release date: 23 July 2021.

Hasbro hinting that a reboot of the TRANSFORMERS movies may be imminent

Hasbro and Paramount have released a curious statement that suggests that a full reboot/rethink of the Transformers movie universe could be incoming.

The current iteration of the Transformers movie universe began in 2007 with the release of Michael Bay's Transformers. It then continued with Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Dark is the Moon (2011), Age of Extinction (2014) and The Last Knight (2017), all of them excruciating. The next film in the series is Travis Knight's Transformers: Bumblebee (2018), which is the first movie in the series not to be directed by Michael Bay. It's also the first film in the series to pick up some positive vibes, mainly due to the revelation that the movie will be set (at least partially) in the 1980s and will feature Bumblebee in his original Volkswagen Beetle form from the original toys, comics and cartoon series.

Paramount had previously slated another full Transformers movie for 2019 and had also assembled a writer's room to discuss options for other movies, including a movie set on Cybertron at the start of the Autobot-Decepticon War and another one set in Ancient Rome, where the Transformers would have presumably transformed into chariots, triremes and giant war elephants.

As of today's announcement it sounds like this idea has been cancelled. Many of the writers in the collective assembled by Paramount have decamped to other projects - Akiva Goldsman to Star Trek: Discovery, Lindsey Beer to the Kingkiller Chronicle movie and TV series, and Robert Kirkman to an exclusive development deal with Amazon - and the 2019 Transformers VI movie no longer appears on Paramount's development slate, suggesting it has also been canned.

This may be down to the disappointing box office of The Last Knight. It made $600 million worldwide, only slightly more than half of the previous two movies' $1.1 billion. With a production budget of $220 million and marketing to match, The Last Knight certainly still turned a profit, but that 50% audience drop seriously surprised Paramount and clearly has them pondering the future of the franchise.

Hasbro's plans now include a rebooted G.I. Joe movie for 2020, which will ignore the previous two films and will be a return to the franchise's roots. They will also be releasing a Micronauts movie in 2020 and the long-gestating Dungeons and Dragons movie (more on that soon) will launch in 2021. More intriguingly a "Hasbro/Paramount Event Movie" will be released in 2021 as well. This may be a Transformers reboot, but it may also be the long-mooted G.I. Joe vs. Transformers crossover movie. The two properties have crossed over many times previously in comic books and there was a hint that the two 1980s cartoon series took place in the same universe (with a character showing up in Transformers who was almost certainly Cobra Commander in disguise), but this would be the first on-screen, large-scaled team-up of the two brands.

Unlike many franchises, many Transformers fans have been praying for a reboot of the movie franchise almost since it started, with many of Michael Bay's decisions (particularly his awful direction, incompetent action scenes, poor scripts and the genuinely terrible production design of the Transformers themselves) roundly criticised and rejected. Here's hoping if there is a reboot, the next creative team will do a better job.

Friday, 16 February 2018

WHEEL OF TIME showrunner confirms he is working on the script

Wheel of Time showrunner and writer Rafe Judkins is working on the script for the show whilst on a writer's retreat near ACTUAL DRAGONMOUNT.

Okay, I lie, it's the volcano of Volcan de Agua, near Antigua, Sacatepequez in Guatemala.

Judkins is on a retreat with several other writers, including Amanda Kate Shuman who has written episodes of Chuck, The Blacklist, Berlin Station and The Following. This may just be a coincidence, or it may be a sign of other potential writers coming on board for the project.

With recent indications that the project is moving forwards (albeit slowly), with Sony Television working with an as-yet unannounced network/streaming partner, hopefully we'll get confirmation of the project soon.

Thanks to Narg at WoTTV for the heads-up.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Gratuitous Lists: The Ten Best RED DWARF Episodes

In honour of Red Dwarf's thirtieth anniversary today, it's time to take a look at the ten best episodes of the show's run.

The stories are not presented in quality order because at this level, there's not much between these episodes. This is the show firing at its very best and frankly all of these episodes are worth watching.

The End
Season 1, Episode 1

"Everybody's dead, Dave." The very first episode of Red Dwarf sets up a very strong premise, with Dave Lister, the lowest-ranking crewmember on the five-mile-long mining ship Red Dwarf (because the service robots have a better union than the human maintenance crew), being sentenced to spend the rest of the mission in temporal stasis after smuggling an unquarantined cat on board. This proves unexpectedly helpful when the crew is wiped out by a lethal radiation leak. Holly, the ship's AI (IQ 6,000, "the same as 12,000 traffic wardens"), steers the ship into deep space and waits for the radiation to die down to a safe background level...which takes 3 million years.

Emerging from stasis, Lister discovers his only company is the now-senile Holly, a humanoid lifeform who descended from his pregnant cat and a holographic recreation of Lister's commanding office, the painfully officious and unpleasant Arnold J. Rimmer.

It's a great premise which gets the show off to a good start (arguably the second episode, Future Echoes, is also required viewing as it sets up how the show can move beyond its limited premise), showcases the amazing cast and features some good gags. It all started here, and it's startling to think how far it would come.

Better Than Life
Season 2, Episode 2
Red Dwarf started off being quite claustrophobic, but in Season 2 the writers started finding ways of getting the crew off their miserably grey spaceship. In Better Than Life the crew get hooked into a video game designed to give them their fantasies. Unfortunately, the game is not prepared for the invasion of Rimmer's self-loathing, disturbingly twisted psyche which sets about sabotaging the game for everyone else with wild abandon. The result is an escalating series of catastrophes in the game as Rimmer's subconscious sets about destroying anything that threatens to make him or his friends happy. It's both extremely funny and also desperately sad and twisted as we realise for the first time that Rimmer has deep-seated reasons for being such an unpleasant man, which the series soon starts mining for great material.

Season 4, Episode 6

Red Dwarf is at its best when mixing pathos and comedy, mining the characters to produce funny material. But sometimes the show just likes to kick back and be absolutely daft with a high concept, in this case ripping the mickey out of the movie Westworld. This episode is definitely in that category. The crew arrive on "Waxworld", a theme park planet inhabited by wax-droids who are supposed to act out historical scenes for the edification of visitors. Unfortunately the droids have gone a bit insane over the last million years or so, and are now trapped into fighting a horrendous war based on their characters' programming.

Or, to put it another way, the episode features the crew teaming up with the unlikeliest band of heroes in history, consisting of Pythagoras ("Alas our numbers do not reach twenty-one; at least then we could form an equilateral triangle,"), Santa, Stan Laurel, Marilyn Monroe, Sergeant Elvis Presley, Gandhi ("DON'T EYEBALL ME GANDHI! Drop to your knees and give me fifty, now!"), Mother Theresa and Queen Victoria. Their enemies are the ultimate team-up of evil and depravity: Adolf Hitler, Rasputin, Emperor Caligula ("Bring hither the swimsuit with the bottom cut out and unleash the rampant wildebeest!"), Al Capone, Richard III and James Last. Inspired by the martyrdom of Winnie the Pooh, the good guys have to fight one last battle to gain victory. Which would be more hopeful if some idiot hadn't put Rimmer in charge of military strategy.

Season 2, Episode 1 
The second season of Red Dwarf immediately opens up the world of the series, introducing the character of Kryten, a service mechanoid suffering from neuroses and an obsession with cleaning. For this first appearance, the character is played by David Ross rather than Robert Llewellyn (who took over when the character was made a regular in Season 3), but Ross nails the character's tics very well. The episode works so well because it gets up our heroes hopes - Kryten reports that the all-female crew of his starship, the Nova 5, are still alive which turns out to be a slight exaggeration - and then shatters them before delving into both Kryten's character and also the worst excesses of Rimmer at his most obnoxious. The "Kryten's rebellion" scene, where Kryten suddenly starts channelling Marlon Brando, remains excellent.

Back to Reality
Season 5, Episode 6

When Season 5 of Red Dwarf aired back in 1992, the production team let it slip that negotiations for a sixth season had become complicated and the show might end forever. This made the final episode's conceit - that the last four years have been part of a VR game played by four people desperately trying to escape a dystopian cyberpunk future of total law enforcement - a little more disturbing as it could possibly have been true. The episode leans into genuine dramatic moments surprisingly well before bringing things around for an uproariously hilarious finale in which the crew engage in an epic car chase whilst being pursued by rocket launcher-wielding motorcyclists and helicopter gunships...all of which happens conveniently (for the sake of the budget) offscreen. This episode also introduces us to the crew's alternate-reality alter-egos, most memorably Duane Dibley (the Cat's thermos-wielding, sandal-wearing alter-ego) and "Jake Bullet, Cybernautics! (traffic control)".

Season 5, Episode 4
Given that, for most of its run, Red Dwarf has an all-male cast, it's interesting when the show spotlights this fact. Quarantine forces the Cat, Kryten and Lister into living in the same room for a week. At first this seems fine as they hang out all the time anyway, but the inability to leave the room for a break soon pushes them past breaking point. The examination of not-always-healthy male friendships is interesting but not allowed to interfere with the comedy, which kicks in a notch when we are introduced to Mr. Flibble, the universe's most psychotic laser-wielding penguin.

Gunmen of the Apocalypse
Season 6, Episode 3
Did you know that Red Dwarf won an Emmy Award? It did, an International Emmy in 1994, for this episode. Gunmen of the Apocalypse was filmed on location in a replica Wild West town erected in, er, Kent and it's clear that both the writers and actors fell in love with the concept. The episode sees the Wild West town stand in as the personification of Kryten's mind as it is invaded by a computer virus. The crew take on new personas thanks to a VR game and enter his mind to fight the virus, which takes the form of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, here re-conceptualised as Wild West gunfighters.

The whole thing is massively high concept but works well, with some fantastic lines, comic timing and possibly the best musical score ever written for the series.

Thanks for the Memory
Season 2, Episode 3
Thanks for the Memory may be the most melancholy episode of Red Dwarf ever made. Feeling sorry for Rimmer on the anniversary of his death, after Rimmer drunkenly confesses he's never been in love, Lister decides to gift him the memory of the love of his life. It's an act of kindness which, of course, backfires.

The episode works because it has a central, genuinely SF idea that is explored in an interesting manner (namely memory transferal and the question of whether memories are what defines us, recently the focus of Altered Carbon) and the story explores the characters of both Lister and Rimmer in intelligence and depth. A criticism of the series is that the writers found Rimmer such a rich source of humour and story that they sometimes left the other characters out in the cold, including our ostensible hero Lister, but this episode works well in telling us more about Lister and the mistakes he's made in his own life. The result is one of Red Dwarf's finest hours, being emotionally affecting as well as very funny.

Season 3, Episode 2

With the third season of Red Dwarf running rather expensive, Doug Naylor and Rob Grant decided to write a tight bottle-episode focusing on Lister and Rimmer after their ship, Starbug, crash-lands on an ice moon. With supplies running low (Lister being forced to choose between a Pot Noodle and a tin of dog food and is genuinely wracked by the decision), the two are forced to resort to desperate measures to survive. We learn more about the two characters than ever before and the episode is unusual in making Lister a bit more at fault than Rimmer. Rimmer is also shown for the first time to have a laudable sense of honour (even if it takes a lot to kick it into action).

Marooned is hilarious and Barrie and Charles have often mooted taking it on the road as a two-man play. Possibly Red Dwarf's best-written half-hour and an unmissable episode.

Season 3, Episode 3
One of Red Dwarf's strictest rules is that there are no aliens. Everything that appears in the show has to be human or made by humans. That means no ravaging monsters. Or at least it didn't, until the writers hit on the idea of GELFs (Genetically-Engineered Life Forms), human-created creatures which, invariably, had broken free of human control and turned in to raging maniacs. The shapeshifting polymorph, which also drains subjects of their negative emotions (turning Lister into a homicidal maniac, Cat into a bum and Rimmer into a vegan hipster) is the finest of these creatures. The crew set out to take on the creature in a mickey-take of Aliens that works fantastically well, resulting in some of the show's finest sight gags. This isn't Red Dwarf at its cleverest or deepest, but it may at it's just laugh-out-loud funniest.

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Happy 30th Birthday, RED DWARF!

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the airing of the very first episode of Red Dwarf, the world's longest-running science fiction comedy show. Set 3 million years in the future, Red Dwarf is the story of the last known human being alive, Dave Lister, a slovenly bum, and his friends and allies (and the officious, arrogant and borderline insane Arnold Rimmer, Lister's nemesis) as they explore deep space and occasionally try to get home.

Red Dwarf was created by writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor in the mid-1980s. Grant and Naylor had been writing together for years, working as writers on satirical puppet show Spitting Image and on radio shows such as Son of Cliche. On Son of Cliche they created a character named "Dave Hollins, Space Cadet", an Earthman who gets stuck millions of years in the future with only a senile computer for company. They developed and expanded the concept, re-titling it Red Dwarf, and trying to sell it to the BBC or Channel 4.

They initially had a cool reception: the BBC was trying to shut down Doctor Who, feeling the show had run its course (they succeeded, if only temporarily, in 1989), and was fiercely resisting making another SF show. There wasn't much interest from other quarters. The show was only finally greenlit after influential producer Paul Jackson - who had produced the massive hit shows The Two Ronnies, Three of a Kind and The Young Ones - took on the project and championed it.

Despite this success, the show was assigned a tiny budget that badly affected Grant and Naylor's casting choices. They'd originally wanted Alfred Molina to play Lister and Alan Rickman Rimmer, but with less money to hand they settled on "punk poet" Craig Charles and one of their voiceover funnymen from Spitting Image, Chris Barrie. Dancer Danny John-Jules and stand-up comedian Norman Lovett completed the cast, place a humanoid descended from Lister's pet cat and the ship's super-advanced AI Holly, respectively. Given their original casting choices had all been white, Naylor and Grant had ended up with a cast that was 50% black, which came in for some bizarre criticism in the British press at the time. The show also had no regular female characters, although this was the point: later episodes established that the absence of any women on board would contribute to the crew's growing list of neuroses and bizarre tics. The show wouldn't gain a recurring female character until Season 3, when Hattie Hayridge took over from Norman Lovett as Holly (who could change his/her appearance at will), and then the addition of Chloe Annett as Kochanski in Seasons 7 and 8.

Red Dwarf debuted on 15 February 1988 to largely indifferent ratings, but a surprisingly strong critical response. In fact, the first episode of Red Dwarf - the ironically titled The End - attracted the highest Audience Appreciation Index response since the Queen's Coronation in 1952! The rest of the first season was patchy, with the terrible budget and awful sets letting the show down even when the gags were pretty funny.

The cast of Red Dwarf in the first episode, which aired thirty years ago today: Danny John-Jules as Cat, Chris Barrie as Rimmer and Craig Charles as Lister.

Season 2 followed later the same year, and saw a slight budget increase that allowed for location filming and some pretty good model work. Grant and Naylor also adjusted their writing style. Having been influenced by Alien and Silent Running, they liked the idea of nailing the isolation of the characters. They built episodes around the idea of loneliness and also around Rimmer's tragic backstory (which they were careful to ensure made the character more understandable, not magically more likeable). The second season was vastly superior to the first and ensured that a third season was commissioned. Naylor and Grant took more direct control as producers and were able to assign the budget more carefully, making it look like the series had been given a much bigger budget increase between seasons than was really the case. Season 3 had a faster pace, more location shooting, more elaborate visual effects, all-new sets and the addition of a new character, service mechanoid Kryten, played with scene-stealing relish by Robert Llewellyn.

It was at this point that Red Dwarf became a breakout, smash-hit success. Seasons 3-6 (airing from 1990 to 1993) saw a very high, consistent run of quality, with some remarkable effects and character work. The show benefited from Naylor's decision to include more actual science in the show, with it riffing on quantum science, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, parallel universes, alternate timelines and other cutting-edge ideas. Ratings were huge, breaking records for a show airing on BBC-2, and the critical acclaim was immense. Grant and Naylor co-wrote two bestselling novels based on the series, Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers and Better Than Life, and discussions over a feature film began. The show's future appeared bright.

Then the show was rocked by two major problems. First off, Craig Charles was arrested on serious criminal charges. Although these charges were later dropped and he was fully exonerated, they took over three years to fully resolve. During this time Rob Grant also quit the show. He felt that the potential of the premise had been exhausted and he wanted to try other projects, including writing novels. Doug Naylor was left to take the reigns himself. With Charles's problems resolved, Seasons 7 and 8 were finally shot and aired in 1997 and 1999. Season 8 won the show's highest ratings of all time, smashing BBC-2's highest ratings recorded up to that time. However, Seasons 7 and 8 only got a lacklustre critical reception, with many viewers feeling that the show had run out of ideas and was badly missing Grant's input, who was much better at character whilst Naylor was more the ideas man.

Then the show disappeared for eleven years.

Chris Barrie as Rimmer, Craig Charles as Lister, Robert Llewellyn as Kryten and Danny John-Jules as Cat in Red Dwarf XII, which aired in 2017.

Doug Naylor had made a decision that Red Dwarf belonged on the big screen and dedicated the next decade of his life trying to get the show into cinemas. Scripts were written and rewritten, investors were lined up (only to pull out). Several times the film got within weeks of entering production only to fall apart at the last minute. Frustrated and annoyed, Naylor finally got the show back on the air in 2009, writing and producing a three-part mini-series for the BBC-owned cable channel Dave called Back to Earth (since retconned as Season 9). It was not well-received, but did get enormous ratings. These paved the way for a return of the series in full, resulting in Seasons 10 (2012), 11 (2016) and 12 (2017), all of which had a positive critical reception, as well as setting records for the Dave cable channel. A thirteenth season is now in the planning stages.

Red Dwarf's appeal has largely been down to the everyman factor, putting blue-collar workers in space who don't know anything about quantum entanglement or slipstream drives, they're just there to keep things ticking over. The show also mixes quite advanced gags about science with very basic gags about bodily secretions, as well punching a hole through the po-faced nature of science fiction. Kryten's quest to become human and learning about human concepts is treated dubiously by the rest of the crew (resulting in the memorable line, "Knock off the Star Trek crap, it's too early in the morning") and then given a very amusing resolution, when he actually becomes human for an episode and is so horrified by having to manage a penis ("Is that the best design someone could come up? The 'last chicken in the shop' look?") that he elects to become a mechanoid again ASAP.

The early appeal also came down to the mixture of laughs and tragedy, pathos and comedy, particularly in the character of Rimmer and in Lister's loneliness which he only manages to surmount by devoting every waking hour to winding Rimmer up. Red Dwarf is a sitcom but one with tremendous and maybe unparalleled characterisation.

There's also something admirable about the show in how it refuses to die. Seasons 2-6 were inarguably the show's golden period and it's been variable ever since Rob Grant left (reaching a nadir in Season 9 but then recovering strongly since then), but it constantly explores new SF ideas and finds new angles with which to approach the universe and the characters. It also helps that the actors were mosty in their twenties when the show started; the transition of these young twenty-something men into middle-aged and slightly world-weary fifty-somethings has felt very natural, helped by the fact they have pretty good genes. I can see these guys still exploring deep space and finding fun ways of doing so in another ten years. The show's long hiatuses, resulting in only 12 seasons in 30 years, have also helped in building up anticipating for the show's return and in giving the writers more time to come up with new ideas.

Red Dwarf is one of science fiction TV's great survivors, being funny, dramatic and human as required. Here's to many more years of exploring the final, smeggiest frontier.

Star Trek: Discovery - Season 1.5

The Federation-Klingon War continues to rage, with the Federation gaining some victories thanks to the USS Discovery's spore-based quantum teleportation drive. Unfortunately, the last jump has carried the Discovery way beyond where anyone has gone before...into another universe.

Star Trek: Discovery had a rocky start, with a prequel two-part story before we even got to meet most of the show's actual recurring cast and the ship itself. The show's tone has been all over the place, whilst the writing has frequently let down the excellent actors that the show has assembled. The second part of the season - which consists of six episodes compared to the first chunk's nine - solves some of these problems. This batch of episodes is much faster-paced, more consistent in quality and delivers some very solid payoff to the mysteries set up at the start of the season, if several of those revelations were predictable months in advance.

Again, Discovery benefits from its very solid cast. Jeremy Isaacs, James Frain, Sonequa Martin-Green, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman and Shazad Latif all continue to deliver stand-out performances, bringing real depth to their characters and performances even when the scripts occasionally falter. Wiseman and Latif in particular benefit from the back run of episodes, with Tilly channelling her youth and enthusiasm in some very unexpected directions and becoming a far more impressive character as a result. Latif's Ash Tyler gets put through the emotional winger and although there are some holes in the way his story developers, the actor never gives less than 100%.

The show continues to be one of the best-looking on television, with sets to die for and some very accomplished action scenes. The CGI and space scenes continue to disappoint, however. Discovery has gone for a very stylised and colourful look (Nebulas! Everywhere!) to its space scenes which are arty but also not very good at getting across the staging and geography of its space battles. The clean lines of the previous series where you could tell what the hell was going on are sadly missed at this point. Starship designs also continue to disappoint: the Klingon ships, which seem to be a hodge-podge of ideas thrown together with little regard for logic or design philosophy, are particularly poor.

In terms of story, a large chunk of this back run of episodes takes place in the Mirror Universe, Star Trek's go-to place when it wants to do morally unambiguous action stories (because everyone in the Mirror Universe is All Evil, All the Time). Discovery's use of the Mirror Universe is effective - avoiding creeping tone of camp that crept in during Deep Space Nine's frequent excursions there - if a bit overdrawn at four episodes, even if these did allow the reappearance of Michelle Yeoh as the evil Philippa Georgiou, whom Yeoh plays with scenery-destroying relish. Still, it gives the series a much-needed dramatic focus.

The show's final stretch feels badly compromised by earlier decisions. Putting both L'Rell and Voq on Discovery and killing off every other Klingon character of note means we have no real stake in the Klingon side of the conflict, especially once L'Rell and Voq both realised that the Federation is absolutely totes awesome after spending five minutes hanging out with them (the "assimilation" threat of the Federation from earlier in the season feels appropriate at this moment). The decision to retire the teleportation device, reinstate Burnham and end the war with a literal deus ex machina (at least from the Klingon POV) also makes it feel like Discovery is giving us easy, pat answers to large, complex problems. The final shot of the season is also very cool, along with the choice of theme music, but it also feels like the show should perhaps have tried standing on its own two feet for a while before playing this card.

Ultimately, the second half of Star Trek: Discovery's first season (***½) is watchable and enjoyable, with a very strong cast (easily the strongest assembled since Deep Space Nine a full quarter of a century ago) and some really interesting ideas being explored. It's a also still a bit muddled in its storytelling, confused in its canonical status and veers inconsistently from setting up complex, morally murky situations to delivering pat, easy answers. But it remains the finest opening season of a Star Trek show since DS9 (if not the original series) and provides a solid foundation for the second season to build on. Star Trek: Discovery can be watched on CBS All Access in the USA, SPACE in Canada and Netflix in most of the rest of the world.

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 4, Episodes 19-20

D19: Between the Darkness and the Light
Airdates: 6 October 1997 (US), 27 November 1997 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by David J. Eagle
Cast: Lt. Eisensen (Marc Gomes), Interrogator (Bruce Gray), Number One (Marjorie Monaghan), Captain James (David Purdham), Felicia (Musetta Vander), Guard (Greg Poland), Evan (J.P. Hubbel), First Guard (James Laing), Assistant (Anneliza Scott)

Date: Approximately 30-31 October 2261.

Plot:    Garibaldi, anxious to rescue Sheridan and start paying back for some the things he did whilst under Psi Corps’ control, attempts to contact the Mars Resistance. He is captured and brought before Number One, who offers Franklin the chance to kill him. Franklin almost agrees, but lets Lyta scan Garibaldi to learn the truth. They discover that he was used by Psi Corps, but is now free of their influence. After convincing Number One into helping them, Lyta, Garibaldi and Franklin set out for the Earthforce prison complex.

On Babylon 5 Delenn and Lennier discover that Londo has called a meeting of the Babylon 5 Advisory Council without informing them. They arrive just as the Narn, Centauri and League worlds unanimously vote to send ships to support Ivanova’s fleet.

The liberation fleet is moving towards the Solar system and successfully defeats the Earthforce destroyers Damocles and Orion in combat. In return for leniency at the war crimes tribunal, one of the captured crewmen reports that some of the ships that have joined Ivanova’s fleet are really still working for Clark and are providing intelligence to Earthforce on their movements. Clark is setting a trap involving some new-model destroyers employing lethal technology. Clark wants to destroy the rebel Earthforce vessels in Ivanova’s fleet to make it look like the liberators are really alien invaders. Ivanova decides to take the White Stars by themselves to intercept and destroy the new vessels before they can attack the Earth ships in the fleet.

Garibaldi, Lyta and Franklin arrive at the prison complex and Garibaldi manages to use his well-publicised face as Sheridan’s captor to get past the outer guards. Lyta uses her telepathic powers to overwhelm the inner guards and they rescue Sheridan from his cell. However, they then have to fight their way back out. With the help of the Resistance, Sheridan is put on a shuttle headed for the liberation fleet.

The White Star forces arrive at the ambush coordinates and encounter a large number of Earthforce destroyers fitted with Shadow technology, namely much improved hull armour and superior weaponry. Full-scale battle erupts and, despite heavy losses, the White Stars emerge triumphant. However, when the last enemy vessel explodes the White Star 2 is crippled and Ivanova severely injured. She and Marcus bail out in a lifepod and the ship explodes.

Sheridan’s shuttle reaches the liberation fleet shortly after Minbari, Narn, Centauri and League warships arrive to support them. He assumes command of the Agamemnon and orders a course set for the Mars colony.


Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Black Panther

Aeons ago, a vast meteorite crashed into central Africa, leaving behind a mountain of vibranium, the hardest and most versatile metal on the planet. The nation of Wakanda has grown up around it, developing into the most technologically-advanced nation on Earth whilst keeping its capabilities secret to avoid drawing the eye of invaders. When a shipment of vibranium is stolen by noted arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, the newly-crowned King T'Challa - the Black Panther of Wakanda - sets out to capture Klaue and avenge a great crime he committed against the country years earlier.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a smoothly-operating machine at this point, having hit a stride where it has consistently churned out well-produced movies for several years now without missing a beat. The strength of the MCU is both its over-arcing storyline extending across multiple movies (and set to culminate in this year's Avengers: Infinity War) and also its growing willingness to let talented, slightly offbeat directors helm individual movies and bring a sense of individuality to them. This could be seen in the Russo Brothers' Winter Soldier (influenced by 1970s spy movies), James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy (influenced by 1970s space opera) and Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok (influenced by glam rock and the 1980s Flash Gordon). And it certainly can be seen in Ryan Coogler's Black Panther.

This film hits all the checkboxes you expect of a Marvel movie: it's colourful, it's fun, it has a slightly knowing sense of humour and it has enough of a broad appeal to keep adults and kids entertained alike. However, it also provides what arguably no Marvel movie has since The Winter Soldier: a palpable sense of menace and a villain who is extremely effective. For the first part of the movie that villain is Andy Serkis's Klaue, who is dynamic and convincingly wide-eyed insane. Later on, Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger rises to the fore and Jordan plays the character with a nonchalant confidence that boils over into simmering rage. It's a powerful performance. Jordan has been on a lot of people's radars ever since his memorable turn as the tragic Wallace in the first season of The Wire, but this film should take him to another level. Most impressively, Killmonger becomes a villain who is clearly in the wrong, but whose motives are clearly understandable and who has human moments of weakness and doubt that make him a more interesting enemy.

In terms of performances, the film overflows with great ones. Lupita Nyong'yo and The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira are both outstanding as warriors defending Wakanda (one from behind the scenes and one with a massive spear), with Letitia Wright stealing every scene she's in as bonkers Wakandan inventor Shuri (think of Tony Stark, but young, female and less prone to tedious angst). Winston Duke has a small but highly memorable role as M'Baku, the leader of a tribe less than happy with T'Challa's ascension, and he gets the lion's share of the film's best lines. Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya is also excellent, using his thoughtful thousand-yard stare to great effect as W'Kabi, one of T'Challa's friends and allies. Angela Bassett also has a strong, elder stateswoman presence as T'Challa's mother. Martin Freeman returns from earlier Marvel films and has a surprisingly important role to play, which he lives up to nicely (and gets an intense conversation with Serkis wherein the director restrains himself from any Hobbit references).

It would be wrong to call his performance disappointing, but Chadwick Boseman gets a little lost in the mix at times, surrounded by far more interesting characters with senses of humour, or righteous honour, or dread-inspiring menace. Boseman's T'Challa gets to be a stoic straight man to most of the rest of the cast, which is fine but does leave Black Panther feeling like one of the less-interesting things about a film called Black Panther. However, he does rally in the film's final act when he discovers the heinous mistake his father made which risks shaming the entire nation, and has to fight to regain his family honour. Forest Whitaker also has a great performance, but only shows up for about ten minutes, making me wonder if he has some contract with Disney where gets to appear for short bursts in each one of their franchises in return for a lot of bank.

Structurally, the film is sound and keeps things ticking over with frequent changes of location and pace, and the subtle use of flashbacks throughout the film to establish character motivations. Some Marvel films trip over having too large a cast or not having enough story to fill their two hours, but Black Panther expertly juggles characters, drama, action, effects, comedic beats (of which there is a fair but, but mostly low-key which is a relief after Thor: Ragnarok) and thematic elements. The movie raises interesting questions about colonialism, imperialism and whether vengeance is better than forgiveness, but does in a restrained manner. Coogler knows this is Hollywood popcorn entertainment, not a treatise on the history of Africa and slavery, but that makes what he does do - subtly weaving these themes throughout the film without slamming the audience over the head with them - more impressive.

The film ends in a big flashy fight and the usual overreliance on CGI, although at least this time the geography of the fighting and the use of the effects is understandable. The final battle is also kept fairly breezy as these things go (learning from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2's interminably never-ending effects overload, perhaps) and there's some nice foreshadowing of the stakes in the final fight earlier in the movie. Also as usual, we get some mid-credit "secret" scenes. There's only two and both are fairly disposable, although the second at least nods at the wider MCU we know Wakanda is going to collide with in Infinity War in just ten weeks' time.

Black Panther (****½) is one of the stronger entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It adheres to the Marvel formula, but it does so in a much more successful manner than most of the movies in the franchise, as well as a more serious one than some of the more recent films. It's a film that's unrelentingly entertaining, action-packed and layers its story of vengeance, family betrayal, politics and blood like an Afrofuturist take on Game of Thrones. It's fun and finds time between the explosions to say some interesting things. It's on general release in the UK now and hits the US at the end of the week.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

ROBOTECH movie gets a new director, writer and (rough) time schedule

Sony are continuing to develop their long-gestating Robotech film project, based on the 1980s American animated TV series (based, in turn, on three Japanese anime series edited together into a single narrative). They now have a director and a writer for the film.

James Wan has withdrawn as director, to be replaced by hotter-than-sun Andy Muschietti, the director of the two-part movie version of Stephen King's IT, the first half of which was released last year to critical acclaim. Muschietti is currently working on IT Part II, which will be released on 6 September 2019. Muschietti will begin work on Robotech in earnest once IT Part II wraps post-production, which probably won't be until mid-2019 at the earliest.

Jason Fuchs has also been attached to the Robotech project as writer. He's thrown out the scripts developed over several previous years and is now working on a fresh take. Fuchs is also in demand following his credit as a co-writer on last year's Wonder Woman. However, his other scripts (Ice Age 3 and Pan) have been less well-received.

Assuming this project moves forward - which seems more likely now a firmer directorial deal seems in place (Wan's deal apparently foundered over DC's inability to confirm a timescale for his Aquaman project, although that is now shooting) - it'll probably be 2021 or 2022 before we see the film on the screen. There also remains a major issue in that Harmony Gold (the creators of Robotech) are in dispute with Studio Nue and Big West (the creators of the Macross anime, which is the primary source for the Robotech story and animation) over international distribution rights for the Macross series, sequels and prequels in the United States and Europe. As a result of this dispute, Studio Nue have refused to licence the original Macross mecha designs to Harmony Gold or (as far as is known) Sony. This means that if the Robotech film moves forward, it will not be able to use any of the mecha, starship or vehicle designs from the original Robotech series, This will not go down well with fans eager to see the Veritech fighters from their childhood in action on-screen.

Still, interesting to see how this project develops as it goes forward. The basic Robotech/Macross premise is incredibly strong: an alien starship crash lands on Earth just before a nascent World War III is about to go nuclear. The world's superpowers band together in the face of this greater threat and reverse-engineer the starship and its technology. A decade later, the alien owners of the ship (or, more accurately, their genetically-engineered slave-soldiers) show up to reclaim it and all hell breaks loose.