Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Monday, 15 January 2018

Wertzone Classics: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Geralt of Rivia is a witcher, a monster-hunter who defends humanity from monstrous and supernatural threats. He has also has a habit of getting involved with the affairs of kings, mages and emperors. Reeling from the recovery of his missing memories, Geralt is caught up in grand events once more when the Nilfgaardian Empire invades the Northern Kingdom for the third time. He is commissioned by the Emperor to find his missing daughter, Ciri, who was also Geralt’s ward for some years. Geralt’s trail will lead through the war-torn no-man’s land of Velen, in Temaria, to the free city of Novigrad and the southern reaches of Redania beyond. His path will also take him to the Skellige Isles, the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen and the beautiful Nilfgaardian vassal state of Toussaint, before he can save Ciri and defeat his former allies turned enemies, the spectral Wild Hunt.

The Witcher 3 is a game that wears many hats. It is the third and concluding game in a trilogy that began with 2007’s The Witcher and continued with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (2011), wrapping up lingering storylines and character arcs from both former games. It is a character-focused, story-heavy game which aspires to the very best of BioWare but it’s set in a vast open world that owes more than a nod to the likes of Bethesda and Rockstar. It is also a direct sequel to Andrzej Sapkowski’s five-volume Witcher novel series: the prior two games were more side-stories to that saga, with Geralt’s missing memories allowing them to stand alone, but this one directly deals with fall-out from the books and reintroduces characters from them. And on top of all of that it aspires to be a game that completely stands alone on its own two feet, with familiarity with neither the prior games nor novels required to enjoy it.

Somehow, it not only achieves those ambitions but utterly trounces them, deploying the kind of confidence, verve and ambition that you’d be forgiven had completely disappeared from modern video game design. It is, quite comfortably, one of the greatest video games of the last decade and the finest computer role-playing game since the release of Planescape: Torment last century.

Given that the previous two games in the series were both somewhat mediocre (both having a great atmosphere and some good character work undercut by awful pacing, inconsistent writing, repetitive fetch-quests and truly terrible combat), it’s quite remarkable that CD Projekt Red was able to pull this off. But they have, and with considerable style.

The Witcher 3 is a roleplaying game where you play as Geralt. Unlike other RPGs you can’t create your own character, but you can certainly guide Geralt’s development, both mechanically – you can favour a combat-heavy approach or one more based around magic or alchemy – and also in terms of personality, by getting Geralt to be more heroic or ambivalent in his response to requests for help and in the (very) frequent morally complex decisions he has to make. At any one time Geralt will have a main storyline quest to follow, related initially to the hunt for Ciri and later for the need to confront the Wild Hunt, and a large number of other objectives. These take the form of side-quests, story-rich missions which are unrelated to the Ciri situation; witcher contracts, where Geralt has to track down a monster, identify its weaknesses and dispatch it; and treasure hunts, where Geralt has to find large stashes of gold or high-value equipment based on information and maps he has found in the world. There are also a massive host of other past-times, including fight-fighting matches and horse races, and location objectives, such as liberating a village from bandits or destroying monster nests. There is never a shortage of anything to do in the game.

So far, so Skyrim. But the key difference between The Witcher 3 and Bethesda’s mega-RPG is in terms of the importance of character and narrative. These elements are usually under-developed in Bethesda’s Fallout and Elder Scrolls games, which instead want to give you as much freedom as possible to do the things you want, which is (or so it’s always been explained) not compatible with a complex, rich narrative which gives you lots of choices on how things unfold. That was already a dubious excuse (as exemplified by what Obsidian did with Fallout: New Vegas, using Bethesda’s own engine to embarrass them with that game’s narrative richness and malleability) but The Witcher 3 sets it on fire. The Witcher 3 has the freedom of Bethesda’s finest but combines it with an incredible depth of story and character. The characters – both Sapkowski-originated or those new to the games – are all complex, multi-layered individuals. Even merchants and one-off village bumpkins who provide intel on a monster attack are usually given a memorable character tic which sets them apart from everyone else. They’re veritable fonts of information, sources of new quests but also most of them are just plain fun to talk to.

For example, the character of Dijkstra comes across initially as a boorish thug, but (even if you haven’t read the books) you’ll quickly discover him to be a quick-witted, deceptively shrewd operator who has some personal affection for Geralt which quickly vanishes the second he thinks you’re working against his interests. The Duchess of Toussaint is a pleasant and intelligent young woman who has worked with Geralt before and is flexible when it comes to matters of the heart or in dealing with isolated incidents, but the second she thinks her duchy is in danger she becomes a steely, determined ruler capable of remarkable ruthlessness. The Witcher 3 is never interested in serving up caricatures or one-note villains, there’s also a motive for what people do and there’s always multiple ways of dealing with them.

In this sense The Witcher 3 encourages players to role-play. For example, Geralt has multiple romantic options in the game but the two primary ones are Yennefer and Triss. For those who’ve read the books, they know that Yennefer is the love of Geralt’s life and it makes sense for them to end up together. For those that haven’t but have played the video games, they will be far more familiar with Triss and may prefer to see Geralt end up with the character they’ve come to know quite well over two previous games spanning 70-odd hours. However, there’s also the fact that Triss did take advantage of Geralt’s amnesia to seduce him and kept him unaware of his prior feelings for Yennefer. This is something that you can make into either a big problem – Triss manipulated Geralt for her own ends – or accept as an unfortunate consequence of an emotionally difficult situation.

This element of choice pervades every moment of the game. Every now and then the game will pause and explain how Geralt’s actions from hours earlier have led to a significant shift in the game’s storyline or status quo, with everything from the destiny of characters to the fate of entire nations hinging on Geralt’s decisions. The game doesn’t judge things, though. As long as Geralt and Ciri are still breathing, the game will continue and events will unfold as they will, even if Geralt makes mistakes and catastrophe results.

Mechanically, the game is a vast improvement over its predecessors. Combat is much-improved, being reactive, intelligent and reasonably fair (although those easily frustrated are directed towards the easier difficulty levels). Intelligent use of swordplay, magic, potions, oils and bombs will see most foes dispatched. It’s worthwhile reading the in-game bestiary to get more information on particular creatures’ weaknesses and also using your “Witcher Senses” to pick up environmental clues to the nature of the creature, as well as tracking enemies across distances. As you level up, you can improve your magical skills which has applications both in and out of combat (such as using your mental manipulation Sign to positively impact on conversations). Later on, you can also gain mutations which dramatically improve your character’s powers, as well as glyphs and wards to further improve your weapons. The game keeps Geralt in a constantly escalating spiral of getting better weapons and armour, although you can also pursue treasure hunt side-quests to get even stronger gear.

The story and character depth, which can see even minor quests evolve into lengthy, epic, multi-hour stories packed with incident, sharp dialogue and dark humour, is certainly the main appeal of the game, whilst the mechanical competence of the gameplay certainly keeps things ticking over. The freedom of the world and the quality of its presentation is another key factor. Unlike say Skyrim, The Witcher 3 isn’t one massive open world. Instead, it’s divided into four distinct, large maps (White Orchard, Velen/Novigrad, Skellige and Toussaint), each with its own character and atmosphere.

Combined, the world space of the game is about twice that of Skyrim, and far denser in terms of quests, points of interests and optional activities. Graphically, the game is stunning. There’s some amazing lighting effects with, easily, the best sunsets and sunrises ever seen in a game. The environments are remarkable, with Novigrad and Beauclair (the main city in Toussaint) fighting for the title of the finest, most convincing fantasy city ever seen in a video game. The dungeons vary from small caves to sprawling, multi-level complexes, whilst massive castles, underwater environments and even quest-specific sojourns to a fairyland and the surface of another planet are included. The Witcher 3 is a visually rich and inventive game which never loses the ability to surprise the player with the diversity of its locations. Even more pleasing, exploring the world is never once slowed by a loading screen (apart from a brief pop-up as you move between the four maps) as you seamlessly pass from exteriors into interiors to subterranean caverns without slowing down. Bethesda’s Creation Engine is left looking especially decrepit at this point by comparison.

The game also has a plethora of monsters to fight, ranging from poison-spewing plants to incorporeal spectres, enormous royal wyverns, sentient killer trees and various giant arachnids. The game’s bestiary ends up being huge, with it never seeming to run out of new creatures to throw into a fight. Character graphics can be a little bit more hit and miss, with major NPCs looking fantastic and minor ones being far less detailed.

Other weaknesses in the game are notable only for their slightness. Geralt isn’t the most nimble-footed character and finely adjusting his position on a ledge can be quite clunky, although this is very rarely an issue. The Skellige Isles map is also slightly underwhelming in its scale. The massive, snow-capped mountains feel like they’re 1:5000 scale models, with what appears to be a massive, towering peak in the distance turning out to be moderate hill about thirty feet away that you can run up in five seconds flat. The other maps are all brilliant, but the illusion that CDPR is trying to sell you in Skellige is too easy to see through. Another weakness is that the war story, the conflict between Nilfgaard and the Northern Kingdoms, feels somewhat underdeveloped and the resolutions are, for the most part, superficial and not entirely logical.

The other issue is one that really will vary by player: the game may be too much for some people. It took me 88 hours to complete the main storyline and that for both expansions (Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine, both included with the Game of the Year Edition), all of the Witcher Contracts and Treasure Hunts and most of the side-quests. But the maps are still plastered in “points of interest”, monster nests, occupied towns and unexplored caves. A thorough, exhaustive play-through could easily take two to three times as long. Conversely, those less concerned with not seeing everything the game can offer could get through it in maybe 50 hours if they focused on the main storyline and a few important, character-focused side-quests. These side-quests are particularly important as they allow you to assemble a crack team of badasses who will come to your aid in a major battle towards the end of the game. The more people you help out, the likelier you will survive and get the best possible outcome. This mechanic is not even spelled out in the game, unlike say Mass Effect 2’s comparable “loyalty missions” idea. It just develops naturally as events unfold. But there’s a huge amount of characters, moving parts and storylines to keep track of during this game.

But the game is so good that none of the criticisms feel relevant. It’s often very funny. The tone of the game can shift from bleak, grimdark nihilism (say during the ending of the harrowing, emotionally raw Bloody Baron storyline) to outright comedy (such as Geralt having to guide a randy ghost through one last party without letting anyone else know what’s going on) to genuine romance on the spin of a dime. It’s a game that knows when to engage in bleakness and when to let the wine and good times flow. There’s a strong sense of compassion, friendship and family to the game which few other video games have ever genuinely engaged with (probably the closest is the Mass Effect trilogy, but even that falls short of the genuine warmth that permeates The Witcher 3’s character relations). The somewhat pervy nature of Geralt’s relationship with women in the first game – which allowed you to collect cards of your sexual conquests – has been replaced by something more egalitarian in this game and more rooted in genuine romantic relationships (Geralt’s face when a woman treats him the way he treated women in the first game is particularly amusing). Attempts to try to play the field and bed every woman in the game can still be made, but this time around there’s consequences. This isn’t to say that the franchise has completely escaped its pervy roots – almost every female character has a plunging neckline, bare midriff or both, occasionally lampshaded in dialogue – but it’s certainly pushed back on it, even allowing you to control the (arguably) more powerful and capable character of Ciri in short but numerous sequences as you learn more about what she’s been up to.

Reviewing The Witcher 3 is a bit like trying to review a 30-book fantasy series in one go: there’s so much in this game that it’s frankly impossible. After 2,400 words I still haven’t mentioned the absolutely outstanding voice acting (apart from the actress who plays Ciri, who doesn’t quite nail it); the Crones, three of the creepiest villains ever seen in video games; the vast numbers of homages to other properties (everything from Game of Thrones to Skyrim to Police Squad!); the elaborate tourney sequence; Roach, your teleporting demon horse; your dilapidated house which you can rebuild slowly; and the full scope of the immense supporting cast, such as your genteel vampire who is overly fond of exposition to a minor demigod named “Johnny” to a dwarven bank manager to a persecuted shapeshifter called Dudu (which for some reason nobody brings up as being hilarious). There is so much here that the game will have you coming back for months, if not years, to try to track down that last missing quest or find that last monster lair.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (*****) is monstrously ambitious, epic on a scale none of its rivals (not even Dragon Age: Inquisition or Skyrim) can match and packed with genuinely well-written, witty and morally complex storylines. It is the foremost gaming achievement of this generation and it throws down a gauntlet to its rivals that I will be shocked if anyone can match it. It also raises the bar very, very high for CDPR’s own successor game in a totally different genre, Cyberpunk 2077. But after playing this game I am much more confident they can pull it off. The Witcher 3 is available (with its brilliant expansions) now for PC (Steam, GoG), X-Box One (UK, USA) and PlayStation 4 (UK, USA). 

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Gratuitous Lists: The Ten Best BATTLESTAR GALACTICA Episodes

After seeing this list of the ten best BSG episodes which had some "interesting" choices (the #1 choice, Unfinished Business, is frankly one of the weakest episodes of the series and started the show's most diabolical subplot, the Love Quadrangle of Doom), I thought I'd offer up my own list.

The stories are not presented in any kind of order because the level of quality between these episodes is pretty close, so I'd rather celebrate these episodes rather than get into an argument about rankings. Also, due to BSG's high level of serialisation, it was sometimes a bit of a judgement call on what was a stand-alone episode and what was a multi-part story.

Season 1, Episode 1

The first episode of the series proper (after the pilot mini-series) is possibly its finest single hour. A taut, claustrophobic episode which sees the Cylons appear every 33 minutes without fail. The crew, only able to grab micronaps, are run to the edge of exhaustion as they push themselves and their ships to breaking point as they try to stay one step ahead of the Cylons, who are their most faceless, their most relentless and their most terrifying in this episode. Eventually a solution is found, but it requires an immense sacrifice of lives, a decision that goes on to have ramifications through the rest of the series.

This episode also strongly influenced the Star Wars movie The Last Jedi, which borrows some of its plot structure and ideas; writer-director Rian Johnson is a big fan of the second incarnation of BSG. The difference is that 33 is the far stronger piece, its shorter running time and much greater character focus giving the story much more weight than the Star Wars movie.

Pegasus/Resurrection Ship
Season 2, Episodes 10-12

Season 2 of BSG threw a massive curveball at audiences halfway through its second season: a second, much larger and more powerful battlestar shows up and its commanding officer, Admiral Cain, takes command of the fleet. Commander Adama's initial relief at not having to take the big decisions any more turns to disquiet and then disgust as he learns that Cain kept her crew safe by being far more ruthless than he was, summarily executing officers who questioned her authority and mandating the physical and mental abuse of Cylon POWs. As the two battlestars prepare for a massive assault on a Cylon resurrection ship, the two COs find themselves contemplating severe measures to keep the other ship in line.

The result is a tense game of psychological cat and mouse, with Michelle Forbes absolutely outstanding in the role of Admiral Cain. The three-part story also plays fair by showing why Cain made the decisions she did (even better exemplified in the later TV movie Razor) and her more ruthless attitude is shown to have some benefits, although it is also shown at having severe drawbacks. The three-parter has what might also be Bear McCreary's best work on the show's score, with "Prelude to War" and "Roslin & Adama" being arguably the single finest pieces he created for the show. I also have to mention Tricia Helfer's outstanding work as both Six and Gina, the tortured Cylon POW, and James Callis bringing a surprisingly human amount of compassion to the role of Baltar as he tries to help them both. Plus we get an impressive space battle as well.

Season 2, Episode 18

For the first time in late Season 2, the show reoriented itself as a drama about the Cylons, artificial intelligences who gained freedom from the creators who brutally enslaved them and then took their revenge. The episode follows Caprica Six and Boomer as they try (badly) to readjust to life in Cylon society after spending years infiltrating the humans, with Eight (a flawless Lucy Lawless) acting as their mentor, only to quickly turn on them when it becomes clear that they've been "corrupted" by human values.

The result is another game of psychological cat-and-mouse as Six and Boomer realise what Eight is up to and work together to overcome her and bring a different kind of message to the Cylons, that they can work and live with humans after all. What could have been a throwaway experimental episode ends up as the catalyst for the biggest change in the show's premise and paradigm to date.

Kobol's Last Gleaming
Season 1, Episodes 12-13

The Season 1 BSG finale is a masterclass in how to take the story pieces that have been put in place slowly over the previous dozen episodes and use them to tell a gripping, intense story that works on an action level (a Cylon basestar needs to be destroyed after it shoots down a Colonial survey team, leaving them stranded on a planetary surface) as well as a character-based one, with Adama and Roslin's simmering, season-long political strife erupting in open conflict with Lee not sure which way to jump.

The story also follows a second storyline back on Caprica, as Helo and Starbuck are finally reunited and Starbuck gets into an old-fashioned throwdown with Six. And just when you think the story can't get any better we get that gutshot of an ending which is still shocking a decade and a half later. Arguably, this was the story where BSG proved it had the legs to run for many years and tell a lot of different stories.

Season 3, Episodes 3-4

The "New Caprica" story arc was always a little muddled - its use of Iraq War and War on Terror imagery always felt a bit more sensationalist than actually trying to say anything of value about those conflicts - but as a story it was much more gripping. The resolution of that story in Exodus can be accused of contrivance (far more people escape from New Caprica than is realistic) but it's nevertheless fantastic.

First off, we have the "atmo-drop", probably the most satisfying, "Hell yeah!" moment out of the entire show. This is followed by the mother of all space battles which is barely survived by our heroes (not really "won"). We then have the character-based drama, with the most heartbreaking scene in the entire series as Tigh confronts his wife over her betrayal of the resistance, and later on his return to Galactica in what should be his moment of triumph, only for Adama to realise his friend is an utterly broken and shattered man and it will be some time before he even starts to recover. McCreary's score and the CGI team also absolutely kill it.

Exodus, Part 2 is also arguably the end of the show's golden age, when every episode (okay, apart from Black Market and Sacrifice) had been good-to-excellent and the show had been constantly inventive, thought-provoking and intelligent. After this episode, things got a fair bit inconsistent, although it was still capable of producing occasionally outstanding episodes.

Revelations/Sometimes a Great Notion
Season 4, Episodes 10-11

For a while it looked like BSG was going to be cancelled halfway through its fourth season, mainly due to the 2008 Writer's Guild of America Strike halting filming. It was touch and go but eventually SyFy okayed them finishing the season off. Which is both good - without it we wouldn't have gotten the mutiny arc - and bad, as most of the rest of the season was weak and the series finale was muddled, confused and incoherent in terms of character, plot and theme. If the series had been cancelled, than Sometimes a Great Notion, the final episode shot before the break, would have been the series finale. If it had been, BSG would probably be talked about now as the greatest (if bleakest) SF series ever made.

The mid-season two-parter is a tense, taut affair. The identities of the Final Five Cylons have been flushed out into the open, the rebel Cylons and their erstwhile human allies are at loggerheads over the fate of the Five and Starbuck is on the verge of discovering the location of Earth. In the Revelations cliffhanger the day is saved and Earth, which our protagonists have been looking for for four years and rested all their hopes and dreams in, is finally located...only for it to turn out to be a blasted, nuked-out ruin. The second part somehow goes even darker, with widespread despair gripping the fleet, one of the main characters choosing to commit suicide (literally blowing her brains out rather than face yet another search for a new home, in possibly the show's single most shocking and unexpected death) and a series of shocking discoveries about the planet, the Thirteenth Colony and the Cylons rocking our very understanding of what the hell the show is even about. There's also some dark humour to be mined by seeing the supposedly enigmatic and wise Leoben being confronted by a genuinely bizarre mystery and promptly freaking out.

Dark, bleak and grim, but also hauntingly atmosphere and beautifully-shot, if this had been the ending, we'd still be talking about the show in awe-inspired tones even now. Sadly, the finale undoes a lot of the power of this story.

Flesh and Bone
Season 1, Episode 8

BSG was always good at psychological drama and mind-games, and its most powerful relationship in this vein was always between the Cylon Leoben Conoy and Starbuck. It started in Flesh and Bone, an early episode which throws a bit of a curveball at the viewer as the Cylon agent is less interested in killing everyone than he is in gaining Starbuck's understanding. The result is that we learn a lot more about Starbuck and come to understand that she is a fundamentally flawed, broken human being but also one who is capable of changing her mind and her outlook. It's also an under-appreciated moment in Roslin's character development, when we see her true, resolute steel for the first time as she ruthlessly (and perhaps a bit too easily) makes a decision that supposedly strong and morally compromised Starbuck cannot.

The episode also marks the start of the Leoben/Starbuck dynamic that is explored in an even more messed-up fashion in the New Caprica arc and finally resolves in Sometimes a Great Notion, when Leoben finally discovers the true mystery and the puzzle he's been searching for all along...and is so disturbed by it he runs away. Flesh and Bone is the moment BSG confirmed that this story of pragmatic survival and political compromise was also going to have a surrealist and spiritual element to it as well.

The Oath/Blood on the Scales
Season 4, Episodes 13-14

By Season 4's mid-point, BSG had fallen a bit too much in love with its bizarre, religious and spiritual side and its complex and self-contradictory mythology. This two-part story sees the "little people" of the fleet having enough of the mystical mumbo-jumbo and snap (with about half the viewers nodding in approval), staging an armed uprising with several main characters joining the mutiny. The result is a story that would have felt at home in Season 1 or 2, with lots of tough moral decisions, interpersonal conflict and some strong action sequences.

It also works very well because the mutineers have a point: giving succour to the Cylon rebels was always going to be an unpopular choice (they did help kill over 20 billion human beings, after all), the impact of the trauma on New Caprica and the discovery of the destruction of Earth had not been properly processed and Roslin was somehow on her second term despite never being elected (and losing the only election she ever stood in).

The two-parter does have a few weaknesses, such as some very out-of-character behaviour for Tom Zarak (to Richard Hatch's fully-justified and vocal displeasure) and a resolution that may have been satisfying on an action level but did nothing to address the core and real concerns of the people who backed the mutiny. But otherwise this late-run BSG episode escapes the mediocrity that plagued the show's endgame and gave us a great throwback to the early running of the show.

Lay Down Your Burdens
Season 2, Episodes 19-20

The BSG Season 2 finale does a lot of great things. It brings on board the mighty Dean Stockwell as the effective Cylon leader John Cavil. It has a great action story as Starbuck leads a rescue mission back to Caprica to save Sam Anders and his rebel group. It also has an effective subplot as the PTSD-suffering Cylon ex-POW Gina has to decide how she is going to take revenge on the people who mentally and sexually abused her for months.

There's a lot going on even before the fleet discovers the inhabitable planet of New Caprica, hidden inside a nebula. The fleet is in the middle of an election campaign, with President Roslin expected to comfortably curb-stomp Gaius Baltar. But the discovery of New Caprica and Baltar's insistence that they could settle on New Caprica and take a break from their relentless stress and toil throws the campaign into an uproar, with several characters considering the morality of rigging the election to ensure the "right" person wins.

BSG was always at its best when it mixed religion, politics, action and character development, and in this story it throws everything into the blender. What comes out is one of the show's most memorable moments, when it jumps forward one year in an instant and shows the catastrophic consequences of our characters' decisions before ending on the mother of all cliffhangers.

TV Movie (airing between Seasons 3 and 4)

It was a toss-up here between Razor and the original mini-series, which did a great job of setting up the show's premise and introducing this band of crazy, messed-up people (humans and androids both). However, the mini is perhaps a little overlong and isn't quite up to the standards that came later on. Razor, on the other hand, works on quite a few levels.

It's a stand-alone story focusing on the new character of Kendra Shaw (a great performance by Stephanie Jacobson). Flashbacks show her joining the crew of the Pegasus just before the Fall of the Twelve Colonies. We see events previously only alluded to in dialogue occurring in real-time and we learn more about Cain, Gina and the other crewmembers on Pegasus, along with plenty of space battles and personal combat. There's also a present-day story following the Galactica and Pegasus as they try to track down an ancient Cylon vessel from the First Cylon War that is posing a threat to the fleet.

There's also a great shout-out to the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica, when we get to meet the original Cylons and see the original baseships and Raiders in action. Neo-BSG always had an awkward relationshp with its much cheesier and less-accomplished forebear, so it's good to see them acknowledging the debt and inspiration from the original show here (even if it does prove that preventing the robotic Cylons from talking was a great move).

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SF&F Questions: Did Deep Space Nine rip off Babylon 5?

In our latest SF&F Question we address one of the biggest controversies in the history of science fiction television: did Star Trek: Deep Space Nine rip off its contemporary and "rival"space station show Babylon 5?

The Basics
Deep Space Nine was the second spin-off television series based on Star Trek. It ran for seven seasons and 178 episodes, debuting on 3 January 1993 and concluding on 2 June 1999.

Babylon 5 was an original science fiction television series which ran for five seasons and 110 episodes, along with an additional six TV movies and its own spin-off show which ran for half a season. It debuted on 22 February 1993 with a stand-alone pilot movie. Season 1 proper debuted on 26 January 1994 and the show concluded on 25 November 1998.

Both shows are set on enormous space stations, which the series is named after. Deep Space Nine is set on a space station near the planet Bajor, which is recovering from forty years of military occupation by the ruthless Cardassian Union. The United Federation of Planets and its space exploration wing, Starfleet, are called in to help run the station and advise the Bajorans on the rebuilding of their world.

Babylon 5's space station (which is considerably larger than DS9) is a sort-of United Nations in space, where representatives from five major governments and dozens of smaller ones meet to discuss important interstellar affairs. The impetus to build the station came from a devastating war between the Earth Alliance and Minbari Federation that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands and destabilised the galaxy.

The contention, made directly by Babylon 5's creator and executive producer J. Michael Straczynski at the time, was that Deep Space Nine had ripped off Babylon 5's concepts and ideas, from the broad idea of setting the show on a space station to some specific elements such as having a shapeshifting character (the Minbari assassin in B5's pilot was originally an actual shapeshifting alien) and the presence of an interstellar "gateway" near the station (the wormhole in DS9's case, the jump gate in B5's case).

Wait, Babylon 5 started after DS9. How can it have ripped it off?
It's true that DS9 aired its pilot episode, Emissary, six weeks before B5 aired its pilot, The Gathering, and took a lot longer to get its first season proper on air. In fact, DS9 was halfway through its second season before B5 could begin airing its first. However, this does not tell the full story of the two shows' development; Babylon 5 was created, conceived and outlined almost five years before DS9 was commissioned.

J. Michael Straczynski came up with the idea for Babylon 5 in 1986 or 1987; he seeded a mention of the name into Final Stand, one of his episodes for Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, which aired on 4 October 1987. He developed the Babylon 5 series bible around this time and wrote a pilot script (an early but still-recognisable version of The Gathering), plus a full set of 22 episode outlines for a full season of the show. Concept artist Peter Ledger also provided paintings of the titular space station and its crew. This package was shopped around CBS, ABC and HBO in 1988 to no avail.

In early 1989 Straczynski and his prospective production partners, Douglas Netter and John Copeland, received a boost when they met Evan Thompson, the head of a group of local stations called Chris Craft. Syndication - where a show is sold direct to lots of local TV stations rather than one of the big national networks - was experiencing a renaissance thanks to the success of Paramount Television's Star Trek: The Next Generation (which had launched in September 1987) and Chris Craft was interested in lining up a new show for the syndication market. Babylon 5 fit the bill, they felt, and they hoped a new science fiction show would do similar numbers to Star Trek for them.
To this end Thompson took the Babylon 5 project directly to Paramount Television. He presented them with the pilot script, the 22 additional episode outlines, the outline of a serialised five-year story arc and the detailed production notes which suggested that the show could be made for less money than TNG. Paramount sat on the notes for about eight to nine months and the producers he spoke to were enthusiastic about the project, but Paramount's senior management felt that having a second science fiction/space opera show set in a completely different universe would be too confusing and would cannibalise the Star Trek audience. By the end of 1989 they had formally passed on the B5 project and Thompson was given back the notes, scripts and outlines.

Eventually Babylon 5 found a home at Warner Brothers and their new Prime-Time Entertainment Network (PTEN), an alliance of syndicated stations. The show was formerly announced as being in development in the summer of `1991. Two months later, Paramount Television announced that they were developing a spin-off from Star Trek: The Next Generation, called Star Trek: Deep Space IX (later changed to Deep Space Nine after too many people wrote in asking what a "Deep Space Ix" was) that would be set on a large space station. Straczynski was not slow in calling foul and reminding people that Paramount had had the story notes for Babylon 5 for almost a year and could have cribbed whatever notes that'd wanted from them.

Okay, that sounds pretty plausible actually. So what is Paramount's side of the story?
Paramount's side of the story is pretty straightforward: they themselves didn't come up with the basic notion of DS9. Instead it came in with a new executive to the network who did not have prior access to any internal documents related to the 1989 Babylon 5 proposal.

Backtracking a little: despite risible critical notices, the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation had done gangbusters for Paramount in terms of ratings and therefore advertising profitability. With the third season of TNG, including its epic Borg cliffhanger episode, The Best of Both Worlds, improving the show's critical and commercial success, they wanted to exploit this by developing more shows in the same setting. However, executive producers Rick Berman and Michael Pillar weren't sure how to approach this and, with TNG being a time-consuming show, they put these ideas on the backburner.

The situation changed in 1991. Brandon Tartikoff, one of the most feted and respected television executives in Hollywood, had departed NBC after fourteen years. During his time at the network he had displayed a canny eye for gauging what would work and what wouldn't, making such far-reaching decisions as renewing Cheers and Seinfeld even after the first few seasons of each show brought in terrible ratings and being rewarded when they both became the biggest shows on television. He was also involved in the creation of The Cosby Show, Miami Vice and The Golden Girls, all of which became immense successes despite Hollywood wisdom being set against them.
Tartikoff was asked to join Paramount Television, which was in the doldrums and needed some firing up. Tartikoff accepted the job and arrived in the post of chairman with one firm idea already in place: a new Star Trek television series. One of his first actions was to summon Berman and Piller to his office (they were terrified that he was going to cancel TNG) and presented them with a concept he'd already developed: if the original Star Trek series and TNG were both "Wagon Train to the stars" - a reference to a 1957-65 Western TV show about pioneers exploring the American West - than he wanted the new show to be "The Rifleman in space", a reference to a 1958-63 TV series focusing on a widowed sheriff trying to keep the peace in a fractious frontier town whilst also raising his young son. The new Star Trek show would therefore not be set on a starship but a starbase, one of the planetary bases frequently visited in both Star Trek series, and the show would deal with the problems of being stationary in possibly hostile surroundings rather than being able to roar off at the end of each week's adventure.

Piller and Berman ran with the idea - possibly a bit more literally than Tartikoff had expected - by proposing that a Starfleet base had been set up on a planet recently under hostile alien occupation, with a newly-widowed Starfleet officer assigned to command the base with his son. The officer's wife had been killed by the Borg in the Battle of Wolf 359 and he was suffering issues related to that event. They decided the occupying aliens would be the Cardassians - introduced in the then-recently-aired TNG episode The Wounded - and created the planet Bajor and its spiritual inhabitants as the planet in question. They also mused on using a stable wormhole (an idea introduced in Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979 and further expanded on in the TNG episode The Price, which had aired in November 1989) as a way of revitalising Bajor's economy and introducing strife with the Cardassians, who'd abandoned the planet before the wormhole was discovered.

However, they ran into problems just a couple of weeks later when costing the show. One of the appeals of doing the project was having regular location filming to make the show feel less claustrophobic than TNG and give it a very different look. The problem is that regular location filming would have meant either almost doubling the budget beyond TNG (at that point already the most expensive TV show on the air) or spending many episodes indoors without going outside, which seemed pointless. They decided that moving the show onto a space station made more sense: starbases were established as also being space stations in the original show and having the show set in space would allow for the exploration and space battles that viewers had come to expect. It also allowed them to have outings to other planets (Bajor or new worlds in the Gamma Quadrant beyond the wormhole) or stay on the station as budgets required. Indeed, the show's first official announcement poster indicated they would be using the already-established Spacedock design from the movie Star Trek III for the space station, but they later decided that using a Cardassian station would be more interesting.

Paramount's defences to the charge of ripping off Babylon 5, therefore, are that 1) the person who came up with the basic idea of DS9 hadn't been working at Paramount previously and arrived with the concept already in place before he'd seen any documents; 2) the B5 documents were all returned to Evan Thompson before 1989 was over and no copies were made (and indeed, it would been legally dubious to do so); 3) the original concept was for a planetary base and was only moved to a space station for budgetary reasons; and 4) that many of the concepts used in DS9, including the wormhole and even the original space station design, predated B5's original genesis by years.

More common sense arguments can also be made: a space opera TV show is going to be either set on a spaceship, a space station or a planet, and with Star Trek already having a starship-set show on the air and with the planet option eliminated by budgetary requirements, a space station was the only setting left.

Right. So what about the shapeshifting alien?
Straczynski's original 1987 The Gathering draft had a shapeshifting alien trying to kill Ambassador Kosh and being defeated. Visual effects limitations would have required this alien to have shifted form with some kind of blurry effect or even off-screen. It should be noted that this alien was only ever intended to appear in the pilot episode.

Deep Space Nine, on the other hand, was pretty much ordered by Paramount to include a shapeshifting alien to cash in on the craze for "morphing". This CG technology had been pioneered by the 1988 movie The Abyss by James Cameron but had exploded in the public consciousness with Cameron's film Terminator 2: Judgement Day, released in July 1991. The T-1000 android's ability to shift shape was accomplished by cutting-edge computer technology and it led to an insane craze for both TV shows and films to use the same software (as well as music videos, such as Michael Jackson's "Black or White"). Paramount wanted a shapeshifting alien as a regular character on DS9 to cash in on this craze, not because an unused TV outline from two years earlier had such a character as a one-off villain.

Okay, that sounds pretty convincing from their perspective. So why is this explanation not more widely known?

J. Michael Straczynski was a pioneer in the use of the Internet for discussing his work and his TV shows: he was sitting on chat groups as early as 1990 talking about the series. Most people in the United States didn't even know what the Internet was until circa 1995 and the Star Trek team were slow to start using the Internet as a means of communicating with fans. As a result, the full story of the creation of Deep Space Nine and Brandon Tartikoff's involvement was not publicly known until the publication of The Deep Space Nine Companion in 2000. Tartikoff himself passed away in 1997 and Michael Piller in 2005, so neither are still with us to comment on the situation. On the other hand, Straczynski was discussing it loudly and publicly from 1991 onwards, so his version of events became dominant in the media.

It should be noted that, many years later, Straczynski also withdrew his suggestion that DS9 ripped off B5, saying that he did not believe Rick Berman nor Michael Piller (whom Straczynski knew) would knowingly rip off another writer's material. He left open the idea that a Paramount executive may have "steered" some discussion with material from his notes, but no evidence for this has ever been produced.

Okay, but did the shows have an impact on one another during production and transmission?
This is clearer. For example, the Cardassians were supposed to have a clandestine intelligence agency known as the "Grey Order", introduced in Season 2 of DS9. One of the production staff pointed out that Babylon 5 had a "Grey Council" (the rulers of the Minbari Federation) and the Cardassian name was changed to "Obsidian Order" to avoid any confusion.

Ron Thornton, the creator of Babylon 5's cutting-edge CGI, also claimed in 1996 that the introduction of the White Star (a warship the B5 crew could use to get around in) was directly inspired by the introduction of the USS Defiant on DS9 a full year earlier, a claim furiously denied by Straczynski who pointed out that the show simply needed a ship bigger than the standard fighters and shuttles to take the fight to the enemy. It should be noted that the relationship between B5's producers and its CGI team at Foundation Imaging was breaking down at this point, so it's unclear if Thornton's comment was meant seriously or in jest (and Ron Thornton passed away in 2016, making it difficult to clarify further).

The acrimony between the two shows resulted in furious flame wars between their respective fandoms on the Internet, becoming notable enough that Straczynski dialled down his criticisms of DS9. This thawing of tensions may have also been down to the fact that Straczynski was good friends with Jeri Taylor, executive producer on Star Trek: Voyager, and wanted to cool things down. To this end he also convinced Majel Barrett-Roddenberry (Number One, Nurse Chapel, Lwaxana Troi and various Federation computer voices on multiple Star Trek shows) to guest star on Babylon 5 during its third season.

Answer: Deep Space Nine did not rip off Babylon 5, despite the fortuitous timing and some very superficial surface similarities which do not withstand detailed scrutiny. A spin-off from the very successful Next Generation was a natural progression for the franchise and a space station setting was a logical extrapolation once a planetary setting was ruled out. There is also no evidence Paramount made (highly unethical, if not illegal) copies of the B5 notes or passed these onto the DS9 producers, and the charge was later withdrawn by B5's executive producer.

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Friday, 12 January 2018

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Comic Issues 11-14

DC12-DC14: The Psi Corps and You!
Publication Date: December 1995
Written by J. Michael Straczynski (plot) and Tim DeHaas (script)
Artwork by John Ridgway (art) & Robbie Busch (colours)

Date: Mid-2259

Plot:    Diane Matthews, a commercial telepath working for Psi Corps, presents a special magazine from Babylon 5 designed to tell children about Psi Corps and their goals.

Matthews explains that one of the first verified telepaths was her great-great grandfather, William Karges. One hundred years ago, Karges discovered he could read people’s minds. He used this ability to go up through the ranks of the Earthforce military, eventually becoming chief bodyguard to President Robinson. He stopped three terrorist plots and died in the line of duty, identifying a would-be assassin that her other security forces neutralised. Karges died after confessing his secret to the President. Aware that other telepaths existed in hiding, Robinson declared an amnesty, promising support and assistance for any telepaths who came forward. This resulted in a monitoring organisation. As the number of telepaths increased, the organisation metamorphosed into the Psi Corps.

Matthews also relates the story of a young boy named Alfred who discovered his telepathic powers in school. He told Psi Corps straight away, was inducted into the Corps and is now one of its most respected members.


Thursday, 11 January 2018

Rumour: FIRST LAW TV show in the planning stages?

According to an eagle-eyed viewer, evidence has emerged hinting that an adaptation of Joe Abercrombie's The First Law is in the planning stages in Hollywood, possibly at Sony (who, interestingly, also have The Wheel of Time in development).

Rumours that a First Law TV or film project was underway began last year, with Deadpool director Tim Miller rumoured to be attached as a producer after he left the Deadpool sequel. Miller has since been attached to the latest attempt to get William Gibson's Neuromancer to the screen, but additional rumours have now put that project on hold as well, in the aftermath of the relative failure of Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner 2049. Either way, Miller's name being attached as producer would be interesting.

The evidence is a leaked photograph from what appears to be a planning session for an adaptation of the book. Copies of The Blade Itself were in evidence, a map of the Circle of the World was pinned to a wall and whiteboards have breakdowns of scenes and characters on them. Another board has photographs of actors in costume from shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom on them, showing potentially the visual look they'd be looking for. This could be relatively easily faked, of course, but it'd be quite a bit of work to go through.

According to IMDB, a First Law project is indeed in development with writers Jack Christian and D.J. McPherson (presumably not the singer-songwriter) attached, but neither have any prior writing or production experience, which would seem unlikely for a project of this scale and scope. This may have been a wishful-thinking project put up on IMDB (which can be edited by public users).

Still, all very interesting. If something is happening, I'm sure we will learn more soon.

Tad Williams provides EMPIRE OF GRASS update

Tad Williams has provided an update on Empire of Grass, the second volume of his Last King of Osten Ard trilogy, to Unbound Worlds.

Empire of Grass is complete in its first draft and needs to go through the editing process. At the moment the book is 460,000 words long, which makes it one of Williams' longest novels (although the 520,000 word record set by his To Green Angel Tower remains intact). Apparently this was done to ensure that the trilogy is indeed completed in three books and doesn't expand to four (as happened with the original Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, at least in paperback, and then Shadowmarch)

As the editing process still has to be gone through and the book is so long, the initial working date of 6 September 2018 seems a bit tight. Williams moots an early 2019 release date instead, which sounds a bit more likely at the moment.

Williams is currently mulling over whether to write The Shadow of Things to Come, a short prequel novel, or to dive straight into The Navigator's Children, the concluding volume of the trilogy. He also has a short story in the planning stages for a new Gardner Dozois fantasy anthology.

All in all, it's a good time to be a Tad Williams fan.


Netflix have released their full trailer for Altered Carbon, their 10-part adaptation of the 2002 novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan.

Altered Carbon debuts on Netflix on 2 February 2018. Work on a second season (to shoot later this year for late 2019 transmission) is already underway.

Richard Morgan also has a blog post here on his visit to the set last February.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Creative Assembly announce THREE KINGDOMS: TOTAL WAR

Creative Assembly and Sega have announced that their next full Total War game will be Total War: Three Kingdoms, marking the first visit of the franchise to China.

The game will explore the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, between roughly 190 and 278 AD, when the Empire was divided into three factions which fought one another for dominance. This was an unusually bloody period of Chinese history, with numerous factions falling and rising as they struggled to reunify the country.

Creative Assembly originally planned to make the first Total War title a Chinese game way back in 2000, but during development they became obsessed with a samurai board game and switched the focus of the video game to Japan, resulting in Shogun: Total War. It's taken them a long time and a dozen other games in the series, but they're finally getting back to their original plan.

Total War: Three Kingdoms will be released in late 2018. This is a very busy period for Creative Assembly: Total War: Warhammer was released in 2016, its sequel just a couple of months ago, whilst Thrones of Britannia: A Total War Saga will be released in the spring. Total War: Warhammer III is also due in 2019.

With other games taking years and years to come out, it's good to see one developer releasing games on a much busier and more frequent schedule, as long as the quality remains high.

CYBERPUNK 2077 lurches into life again

CD Projekt, the Polish development company behind the Witcher trilogy of video games and the GoG digital games service, seem to have begun the pre-release marketing for their next video game: Cyberpunk 2077.

They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step, and that's what this move seems to be: five years after its last tweet, the Cyberpunk Twitter feed has rebooted itself with a simple "beep".

Cyberpunk 2077 was announced in 2012 as one of two large-scale, open-world RPGs the company was working on. The other was, of course, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which was released to a rapturous reception in early 2015 (I am playing this at the moment and should have a review in the next week or so). After an early concept trailer and a bunch of interviews, CD Projekt declared radio silence, not wanting to hype up the game before it was ready.

Cyberpunk 2077 is - shockingly - a cyberpunk video game set in the year 2077. It is set in the Cyberpunk pen-and-paper RPG universe created by Mike Pondsmith in 1988, a world of massive corporations, oppressive corporations and people struggling for freedom and humanity in a world of massive technological and corporate power. The video game will be set in one city (probably Night City, a post-conflict Californian city and the signature setting in the pen-and-paper game) and possibly its surrounds, and will allow players to create their own character. They will be able to pursue a detailed main storyline, numerous side-quests and lots of optional activities. There may also be a multiplayer component of some description.

Given the impact of the Cyberpunk RPG and the genre as a whole, which inspired the Deus Ex and Shadowrun franchises, among others, it'll be interesting to see what the final result is like. CDPR may also be fortuitously tapping into a renewed interest and awareness in the cyberpunk genre, thanks to the recent release of Blade Runner 2049 (out on DVD and Blu-Ray next month) and the arrival of the Netflix TV series Altered Carbon.

It'll be interesting to see how in-depth the marketing for Cyberpunk 2077 will be, and if CDPR are going to give us a short, sharp campaign followed by release or something longer. In either case, the hopes for a 2018 or early 2019 release have risen according.