Wednesday, 28 September 2016

R. Scott Bakker's GREAT ORDEAL released in UK

The Great Ordeal is out today (well, 29 September, which is in an hour or so) in the UK and Commonwealth territories from Orbit. The book was previously released by Overlook Press in the United States in July.

The Great Ordeal is the third and penultimate volume of The Aspect-Emperor, and the sixth novel set in Bakker's Second Apocalypse mega-series. The next novel in the series, The Unholy Consult, is already complete and has a semi-firm release date of July 2017.

You can read my review of The Great Ordeal here and catch up on the History of Earwa with my five-part catch-up series here.

WASTELAND 3 announced

inXile Entertainment have announced development of Wasteland 3, the sequel to their 2014 post-apocalyptic RPG Wasteland 2. Like its predecessor, this game will be crowdfunded.

The head of inXile Entertainment, Brian Fargo, formerly worked for Electronic Arts, where he made the original Wasteland back in 1988, and then founded Interplay. When they were unable to create a sequel to Wasteland as EA refused to give up the rights, they instead created the Fallout video game series. After Interplay collapsed in the early 2000s, Fargo founded inXile and reacquired the Wasteland licence. In 2012 inXile launched a Kickstarter campaign for Wasteland 2, asking for $900,000 and eventually ending up with over $3 million. The game was released in late 2014 to strong critical acclaim, and a "Director's Cut" was then released a year later which upgraded almost every aspect of the game.

Wasteland 3 will feature radically enhanced graphics, including a much-improved scaling system. This will allow for cinematic cut scenes and action shots similar to those in XCOM and its sequel. The game will also be fully voiced and will have co-op multiplayer with players able to carry out quests in different parts of the world map simultaneously and have a knock-on effect on the other player's story (similar to what is being developed for Divinity: Original Sin II). The game will also feature an upgradeable home base and will be released on PC and console simultaneously.

This time around inXile are using the newer crowdfunding service Fig. Unlike Kickstarter, Fig acts as an investment plan and will see any profits from the game returned to the investors. inXile are targeting a budget of over $7 million for the game, mostly paid for by the profits from Wasteland 2, but will be seeking to raise $2.75 million from investors.

inXile are also finishing off two other games, both crowdfunded. Torment: Tides of Numenera is mostly completed and is in bug-fixing and QA ahead of an early 2017 release. Development is in full swing on The Bard's Tale IV, with a mid-to-late 2017 release date mooted. Wasteland 3 is more likely to come out in 2018 or 2019.

Warner Brothers release new trailer for FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

Warner Brothers have unveiled their final full trailer for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first in a prequel trilogy to the Harry Potter series.

Written by J.K. Rowling and directed by regular Potter director David Yates, the film will be released on 18 November.

Cover art for NEW YORK 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit Books have released the cover art for Kim Stanley Robinson's next novel, New York 2140: A Novel.

The new book will be set in New York in 2140 and will depict how the city is adapting to being partially submerged. The cover art is by Stephan Martiniere. The cover blurb:

The waters rose, submerging New York City.
But the residents adapted and it remained the bustling, vibrant metropolis it had always been. Though changed forever.

Every street became a canal. Every skyscraper an island.

Through the eyes of the varied inhabitants of one building Kim Stanley Robinson shows us how one of our great cities will change with the rising tides.

And how we too will change.
 The novel will be published on 21 March 2017 in the UK and USA from Orbit.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb

Betrayed, tortured and left for dead, Fitz has survived the depredations of his mad uncle Regal and been taken to safety in the countryside of the Six Duchies. Plagued by nightmares and trauma, Fitz eventually recovers enough to swear himself to two tasks: the murder of Regal and the safe rescue of Verity, the long-missing true king.

Assassin's Quest concludes the Farseer Trilogy in a manner that I don't think anyone was quite expecting. The first two volumes of the Farseer series are traditional epic fantasies in many respects, but ones where more overt displays of magic and violence are rolled back in favour of a deeper emotional storyline and character development. Still, with their intrigue, battles, romance and betrayals (if separated by lots of long-winded introspection), there is much of the standard fantasy template within them.

Assassin's Quest is completely different. In fact, it's a very strange book. For most of the novel we are firmly in Fitz's head as he undergoes what can best be described as a PTSD-induced nervous and near-mental breakdown after the trauma he suffered at the end of Royal Assassin. Suffering severe depression and making awful judgement calls (as everyone calls him on but himself), Fitz has to first find himself and restore his confidence before he can embark on his long-delayed true quest, which is to find and rescue Verity. Eventually, after crossing (with agonising slowness and quite astonishing amounts of angst) the entire length of the Six Duchies, Fitz overcomes his demons and gets on with the story. The problem is that this happens some around page 500, meaning that the novel only then has 300 pages to wrap the entire trilogy up in.

You might imagine this means that those last 300 pages are full of incident and plot and character development as Hobb brings the story across the finish line? Not so much. Those 300 pages still meander, circling around major plot and character moments for dozens of pages before landing (and often exactly where the reader can see them going). Eventually, in the last few pages of the book, the author explains the background of the Elderlings, Forging, the Red Ship Raiders, the Skill and many other aspects of her world, but it comes so abruptly after almost 800 pages of slow-burning despair that it feels highly anti-climactic.

In some ways you have to respect Hobb for crafting such an utterly strange ending to a fantasy trilogy, one that shys away from convention and ignores every rule of plot structure and pacing. In many respects Hobb was writing a profoundly anti-epic fantasy, something similar to what Patrick Rothfuss appears to be doing with his trilogy (only with rather less humour), and in its sacrifice of plot and action and exposition for character and a realistic approach to how a real human mind might cope with the craziness of your average epic fantasy adventure, Hobb is clearly doing something different.

But different does not mean good and the thing about experiments is that they sometimes just don't work. Assassin's Quest has fine moments of characterisation (probably best exemplified in the relationship between Fitz and the Fool), some real moments of jaw-clenching terror and some very odd moments of real magical weirdness, but it is also a novel that unfolds with all the verve, pacing and tension of watching a lethargic snail travel thirty miles. The massive stakes and tensions raised over the course of almost 1,200 pages across the first two volumes are effectively handwaved away at the end of the novel: the Red Ship Raiders are defeated off-screen, the Fool remains resolutely unexplained and most of Fitz's friends and allies remain in complete ignorance that he is alive.

Obviously we know now there is more to come in the Tawny Man and Fitz and the Fool trilogies, but on its own merits Assassin's Quest (**½) is an altogether unsatisfying conclusion to the first series, languid to the point of unconsciousness until the too-rushed ending. There are some wonderful atmosphere moments and some occasionally effective dialogue, but overall it is a disappointing novel. Still, it is followed up by the far superior Liveship Traders trilogy. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

New Historical SONG OF ICE AND FIRE Maps

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

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

More to follow.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Building a Universe in the Public Eye: STAR CITIZEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sony confirm a DARK TOWER TV series is in the works

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Genre television crushes the Emmy Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

New RED DWARF episodes start airing tonight

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Night Without Stars by Peter F. Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Wertzone Classics: Dungeon Keeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Sense8: Season 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY debut delayed until May 2017

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

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

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

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The creator of many of SFF gaming's most famous characters retires

Chris Metzen, the creator of the StarCraft and Diablo fictional universes for Blizzard Entertainment and the primary creative force on WarCraft, has announced that he is retiring at the age of 42.

Very arguably, Metzen's most well-known creation is the honourable orc chieftain Thrall. Not only did he create the character, he provided his voice in multiple games. Metzen's other famous creations include StarCraft's Kerrigan and Jim Raynor, and several of Overwatch's roster of characters.

Metzen joined Blizzard in 1994 to work on Justice League Taskforce, a console beat 'em up based on DC Comics characters. However, he took time out to lend a hand with their in-development real-time strategy game, WarCraft: Orcs and Humans. The setting, storyline and characters in the original game were very bare-bones, so for the sequel, WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995), Metzen took a lead role in design (both character and mission) and crafting the background lore for the setting. He then created the world, storyline and characters for both Diablo (1996) and StarCraft (1998) and their respective expansions and sequels.

Metzen worked extensively on WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002) and its expansion The Frozen Throne (2003), which set the scene for World of WarCraft (2004). Metzen played a key development role on World of WarCraft and all six (to date) of its expansions, but the ongoing development of the game and frequent retcons of established lore due to game design limitations has frustrated some fans. Metzen returned to creative lead and design on StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (2010) and its expansions, as well as Diablo III (2012).

After World of WarCraft's release Metzen worked on Blizzard's science fiction MMORPG Titan. Titan was eventually cancelled, but its lore, world and characters were recycled instead into the competitive online shooter Overwatch (2016), which is Blizzard's newest major franchise. Metzen also contributed the story for the 2016 WarCraft film, directed by Duncan Jones.

Metzen's early retirement is understandable given his immense workload for many years, but it also leaves Blizzard in an odd place, with the creative lead of three of its four main franchises departing at once. The future of Blizzard's single-player games has been in doubt for some time, with its focus switching more and more to competitive online multiplayer games, and it may be that Blizzard have no plans for a WarCraft IV, Diablo IV or StarCraft III at this time, which presumably would not have left Metzen with much to do.

Between Jim Raynor, Kerrigan, Arcturus Mengsk, Tassadar of the Protoss, Zeratul of the Dark Templar and Artanis the Lich King, Metzen has created some of SFF gaming's most well-known characters. He also pioneered the idea of in-depth storytelling through a strategy game interface, something that had not previously been rendered entirely successfully.

Metzen has said that he will continue providing voiceover work for Blizzard. Most notably, he will continue to provide the voice of orc hero Thrall for future World of WarCraft expansions and his cross-over appearances in online card game Hearthstone and brawler Heroes of the Storm.

Monday, 12 September 2016

WARCRAFT: LORD OF THE CLANS "released" 20 years late

Blizzard's WarCraft adventure game Lord of the Clans has made its way onto the Internet (link to a news article), twenty years after the game first began development.

Thrall confronts Deathwing, the world-destroying giga-dragon-god-thing from World of WarCraft, and defeats him with a jetpack.

Blizzard Entertainment had been founded in 1991 under the name Silicon & Synapse. They scored an early hit with side-scrolling platform game Lost Vikings, but their first big breakout game (after a name change to Blizzard) was WarCraft: Orcs and Humans, released in 1994. WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness was released at the end of 1995 and was an even bigger hit, selling several million copies and going toe-to-toe with the Command & Conquer series for domination of the real-time strategy genre.

Blizzard doubled down on their hit franchise, crafting more storyline and lore for the game and releasing an expansion to WarCraft II, Beyond the Dark Portal, in April 1996. Whilst one of their partner studios was working on a new dark fantasy action game called Diablo, Blizzard made the then-controversial decision to start working on a science fiction strategy game. This was eventually released in May 1998 under the title StarCraft and became their first game to sell over ten million copies, transforming the fortunes of the company forever.

However, back in 1996 StarCraft felt like a big risk and some at the company were dubious about leaving the WarCraft universe untouched for several years before they could return for a full sequel. They decided to outsource development of an animated adventure game to a Russian animation studio, with Blizzard controlling overall design and writing. The Blizzard team had already envisaged a WarCraft III revolving around a charismatic orc chieftain named Thrall, so they decided to set up his story in the adventure game, which was given the title Lord of the Clans.

Work on the game proceeded for almost two years, but at the E3 show in 1998 Blizzard announced the cancellation of the title. One reason for the cancellation was that the game's code had not been compiled very well and was causing Blizzard headaches: replacing the code would have entailed a substantial and therefore expensive rewrite of the entire game from scratch, which would have meant them missing their projected release date. In addition, although the prior WarCraft games had a notable sense of humour, Lord of the Clans was an outright black comedy which was a bit tonally jarring. Finally, by 1998 the traditional adventure game market was considered to be dead or dying, with LucasArts (the market leaders) announcing that their future games would be 3D. Blizzard were concerned that their game would look far too dated by the time it arrived.

Although Lord of the Clans was cancelled, its storyline is considered canonical and Christie Golden released a novel based on the game story in 2001. The events of Lord of the Clans would be referred to in WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002) and its expansion, The Frozen Throne (2003), as well as in that most obscure of online multiplayer games, World of WarCraft (2004).

Exactly how Lord of the Clans has leaked is unclear, and I'm certainly not telling you how to get it. The game is apparently 95% complete, with only a few synthesised voices hinting at where things have not been finished, and perfectly playable. Well, perfectly for a low-res, twenty-year-old adventure game.

It's also worth nothing that the game was created long, long before WarCraft III and World of WarCraft would establish the famous WarCraft aesthetic, and Lord of the Clans is strongly at variance with it in tone. But for a look at what could have been a very different path for Blizzard and WarCraft, it is quite interesting.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Season 3

The Clone Wars rage on, but the cost in lives and money has become enormous. As the Galactic Republic votes to put even more money and resources into the war, Senator Amidala leads a fresh initiative to make peace with the Separatists. Meanwhile, renewed conflict erupts on Mandalore and Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano travel to the mysterious world of Mortis to learn more about the prophecy of the Chosen One.

The third season of The Clone Wars is - to a certain degree - a more thoughtful one than what has come before. There are still lots of massive battles and impressive action sequences, of course, but there's also more reflective moments that seek to expand the mythology of Star Wars and further characterisation. There's also a decision to flesh out the continuity of the series: several episodes in the third season flash back to the first season and expand on events that took place previously.

This particularly benefits the character of Ahsoka. The "callow hot-headed youth" archetype has been played to death, but Ahsoka's growing maturity and her ability to adapt to different situations marks her out as a different kind of character to Anakin. Her role in the season finale, in which she joins forces with some kidnapped padawans and a familiar Wookie warrior, is particularly successful in this regard. The season also fleshes out the 501st Clone Battalion, adding more characters to the mix and showing how their ranks change between battles as recruits join and old hands pass away.

One of the bigger surprises of watching The Clone Wars is how lightly - barely at all by this point, halfway through the series run - it handles Anakin's descent to the Dark Side. The odd overzealous moment of anger here and there aside, Anakin shows little of the later rage and anger that will consume him. Instead, and more cleverly, the writers continue to deepen his emotional attachment to Padme and his responsibilities for Ahsoka, setting up how the severing of those attachments later on help pave the way for his downfall. Most successfully, the season gives us a multi-part story that explores just what it means to be the Chosen One and what bringing "balance to the Force" means, and gives us the moment when Anakin could have saved himself and the galaxy if he'd chosen otherwise.

The season also has a few lighter moments, such as an amusing solo adventure for R2-D2 and C-3PO, and several all-out action episodes, including a prison break where Anakin meets Captain Tarkin for the first time (and they discover a mutual respect, calling back to the original Star Wars movie). It also has a few disappointing episodes, most notably a multi-episode arc which seems to serve little purpose other than give us a lame (and, as future seasons show, redundant) replacement for Darth Maul.

For the most part, though, Season 3 of The Clone Wars (****) is highly watchable, entertaining and far more nuanced than the movies it spins off from. The animation is ever more impressive, the voice acting is excellent and the series retains its reputation for excellent pulp fun. It is available now as part of the Complete Season 1-5 box set (UK, USA).

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Gratuitous Lists: The Star Trek TV Series Ranked

The philosophy of the Gratuitous Lists feature was to have lists of stuff that are unranked, because frankly if you're talking about the 12th best thing of all time or the 9th best thing of all time, the differences are going to be pretty minor. In the case of the Star Trek lists, however, that's kind of pointless because there's way too few things to put on the list. So for these ones I'm ranking them and people can argue away to their heart's content. So let us proceed:

The cast of Voyager: Lt. Harry Kim (Garrett Wang), Seven-of-Nine (Jeri Ryan), the Doctor (Robert Picardo), Neelix (Ethan Phillips), Captain Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), Commander Chakotay (Robert Beltran), Lt. B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson), Lt. Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) and Lt. Commander Tuvok (Tim Russ)

6. Star Trek: Voyager
Created by Rick Berman, Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor Produced by Rick Berman, Jeri Taylor, Michael Piller and Brannon Braga • Aired 16 January 1995-23 May 2001 • 7 seasons 172 episodes

Timeframe: AD 2371-2377

Premise: The Intrepid-class USS Voyager is dispatched on a mission to apprehend a vessel belonging to the Maquis, a terrorist group. Both ships are inadvertently transported 70,000 light-years to the remote Delta Quadrant of the galaxy. Captain Janeway is forced into an uneasy alliance with the Maquis commander, Chakotay, so that both crews can return home to Federation space.

Assessment: When Voyager started in 1995, it had a lot of promise to it. Fans had been criticising The Next Generation (and, to a lesser extent, the original series) because it spent an awful lot of time flying between starbases rather than genuinely going "where no one had gone before". By dumping a Federation starship on the far side of the galaxy with no Federation, no Starfleet, no Klingons and no Romulans, the hope was to create a completely new set of heroes and villains, with the incredibly isolated ship in genuine danger.

None of that really happened. Voyager remained in pristine condition despite not being able to resupply or get repaired. Continuity was minimal, with the reset button being hit at the end of every episode. Its new, original races were cheesy stock races which didn't vary from the Star Trek standard, and it wasn't long before the show was (rather desperately) trying to shoehorn in Klingons, Romulans and the Ferengi. The most prevalent new enemy race, the Kazon, were soon thrown out for being dire and the show settled on The Next Generation's most memorable foe, the Borg, as their main enemy, as well as reintroducing staple TNG villain Q.

The show moderately improved in the fourth season, with the introduction of Jeri Ryan as "saved" Borg drone Seven of Nine. Seven provided an able foil for Captain Janeway, with their on-screen antagonism giving way to mutual respect fuelled by the actresses' off-screen antipathy to one another. Rapidly improving CG effects technology also resulted in some visually impressive episodes late in the show's run. However, a largely indifferent and unchallenged cast, some awful writing and a lot of pulled punches made Star Trek: Voyager excruciating most of the time and just plain dull the rest.

The show wasn't a complete wash, however, with Robert Picardo's excellent performance as the ship's holographic doctor gradually attaining sentience providing a lot of humour and, surprisingly, pathos as the show continued. However, the show's greatest success may have been annoying long-term Trek writer Ronald D. Moore so much with its unfulfilled promise that he later went off and put most of his ideas into practice on the far superior Battlestar Galactica (2003-09) reboot instead.

Check Out: Scorpion (Parts 1 & 2), Year of Hell, Message in a Bottle.

Avoid at All Costs: Threshold, Fair Haven, Endgame and, to be frank, any episode that doesn't revolve around the Doctor or Seven-of-Nine.

The cast of Enterprise: Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley), Chief Engineer Charles "Trip" Tucker (Connor Trinneer), Ensign Travis Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery), Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula), T'Pol (Jolene Blalock), Ensign Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) and Lt. Malcolm Reed (Dominic Keating.

5. Star Trek: Enterprise

Created by Rick Berman and Brannon Braga Produced by Rick Berman, Brannon Braga and Manny Coto • Aired 26 September 2001-13 May 2005 • 4 seasons 98 episodes

Timeframe: 16 April 2151-55 (the final episode takes place in 2161)

Premise: In 2151 Earth launches its first Warp 5-capable ship, the NX-01 Enterprise, under the command of Jonathan Archer and the watchful eye of the Vulcan "advisor" T'Pol. Earth faces rising tensions between neighbouring worlds like Tellar, Vulcan and Andora, not to mention navigating the dangerous first contact with the Klingon Empire. But the Enterprise's adventures will eventually set the scene for the birth of the United Federation of Planets itself.

Assessment: When Paramount demanded that Star Trek uber-producer Rick Berman create a new series to follow up Voyager, he was dubious. He felt that the series was suffering from "franchise fatigue" after shooting twenty-one seasons in fourteen years and recommended resting the show for a while. But Paramount wanted the new series to start immediately. Reluctantly, Berman and co-writer Brannon Braga complied.

And they did try to be original. They decided to make the new show a prequel, set a century before the original series. Their aim was to gradually build to the founding of the Federation. The decision to have a ship called Enterprise which had never been mentioned before was cheesy, but they did at least attempt to justify it. They also made clever use of ever-more-impressive effects technology and the casting was much better than Voyager's, with the actors feeling more engaged and excited by the project. But too often in the first two seasons the writers fell back on stock Star Trek ideas and situations rather than doing the premise justice.

In Season 3 they abruptly course-corrected. They brought in a talented and imaginative new writer, Manny Coto, and began engaging in more serialisation. They also dropped the ill-advised "temporal cold war" story of the first two seasons (a pointless attempt to keep touching base with the post-Voyager timeline) and focused more on interstellar politics and tensions, laying the seeds for the foundation of the Federation. This culminated in the Coto-helmed fourth season which saw a dramatic upswing in quality. Unfortunately, when the series was cancelled they decided to go out on a truly diabolical note. These Are the Voyages... is the worst Star Trek finale and one of the worst episodes in the franchise's history, and soured both fans and cast on the show. Still, there are some great episodes to be found and if Enterprise was one series too far, at least it tried to be original and ambitious.

Check Out: Demons, Terra Prime, The Forge, Babel One, The Andorian Incident.

Avoid at All Costs: These Are the Voyages..., A Night in Sickbay, Two Days and Two Nights.

The cast of The Animated Series: Lt. Nyota Uhuru (Nichelle Nichols), Commander Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Commander Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), Lt. Arex (James Doohan), Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Lt. M'Ress (Majel Barrett), Lt. Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett)

4. Star Trek: The Animated Series
Created by Gene Roddenberry Produced by Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana • Aired 8 September 1973-12 October 1974 • 2 seasons 22 episodes

Timeframe: approx. 2269-70

Premise: Continuing the five-year mission of the USS Enterprise under Captain James T. Kirk. Only in two dimensions.

Assessment: Given The Animated Series's relative obscurity (until its recent re-release) and the fact it's animated on a low budget, it's actually surprisingly decent. The writers (many returning from the live-action series) clearly revel in the fact that they can depict truly alien beings and planets and the TV show actors all return to voice their characters, which adds a lot of credibility to the show. The show has also been surprisingly well-suited to modern social media, with both Swear Trek and Starcher Trek generating a lot of laughs based on it.

Check Out: Yesteryear, The Time Trap, More Tribbles, More Troubles, The Lorelei Signal.

Avoid at All Costs: Mudd's Passion

The cast of the original series: Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), Ensign Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett), Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Lt. Nyota Uhuru (Nichelle Nichols), Commander Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Lt. Hikaru Sulu (George Takei)

3. Star Trek: The Original Series
Created by Gene Roddenberry Produced by Gene Roddenberry, Gene L. Coon and Fred Freiberger • Aired 8 September 1966-3 June 1969 • 3 seasons 79 episodes

Timeframe: approx. 2265-68 (the pilot episode takes place circa 2255)

Premise: In the mid-23rd Century, Captain James T. Kirk commands the Constitution-class USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) on a five-year mission to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilisations and to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Assessment: For a show made in the 1960s, the original Star Trek has withstood the test of time far better than you'd expect. The regular actors are on top form throughout and some of the episodes remain genuinely inventive, powerful and surprisingly topical. Other episodes are poor, particularly most of the third season when the network replaced Gene Roddenberry with hack writer Fred Freiberger, but the seeds of Star Trek and the reason the franchise has lasted fifty years are clearly in place.

The original show probably has the strongest set of characters in terms of archetypes, but it's actually startling how little most of the characters bar Spock, McCoy and Kirk get to do. Given there's 79 episodes, you'd expect Chekov, Sulu, Uhura and Scotty to have at least a few dedicated episodes apiece but nope. They'd have to wait until the films and the reboot movies to get a bigger slice of the action.

Still, the original series still packs an impressive emotional wallop in episodes like The City on the Edge of Forever and Amok Time, whilst episodes like Space Seed and Balance of Terror are effective, tense action stories and The Trouble with Tribbles is a splendid comedy piece. This is where it all started, and it (mostly) still holds up well.

Check Out: The City on the Edge of Forever, Space Seed, Amok Time, Balance of Terror, Mirror, Mirror, The Trouble with Tribbles.

Avoid at All Costs: Spock's Brain, The Way to Eden, Turnabout Intruder.

The cast of The Next Generation: Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Counsellor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner), Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton), Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn)

2. Star Trek: The Next Generation
Created by Gene Roddenberry Produced by Gene Roddenberry, Rick Berman, Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor • Aired 28 September 1987-23 May 1994 • 7 seasons 178 episodes

Timeframe: AD 2364-71

Premise: Almost a century after Kirk's time, Captain Jean-Luc Picard commands the Galaxy-class USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) as it defends the Federation, explores new planets and undertakes cutting-edge scientific research.

Assessment: Bringing back Star Trek was an obvious move, but employing a whole new cast and set of characters and putting them on a new (and, at the time, rather weird-looking) Enterprise a hundred years further in the future? Paramount made a massive gamble with Star Trek: The Next Generation and one that at first didn't look like it had paid off. Although ratings were strong, most of the show's first two seasons were torn apart by critics. It wasn't until deep in the second season that classic episodes started appearing.

It took Gene Roddenberry's retirement and the bringing-in of hungry new writer-producer Michael Piller to really let things take off. In particular, the writers Piller brought in like Ronald D. Moore and Naren Shanker soon really began making the show work by writing to the strengths of the characters. New enemies like the Borg were introduced, old races like the Klingons and Romulans were explored in greater depth and, most importantly of all, the show employed the formidable skills of some extremely talented actors like Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner.

The Next Generation is easily the most popular incarnation of Star Trek, its ratings dwarfing that of the rest, but it's also the most important. It showed that Star Trek can still work when you move away from the Kirk-Spock dynamic and that the universe can have numerous different kinds of story in it.

However, it's not the best. TNG is somewhat inconsistent in tone, with almost half the run of the show being blighted by weak episodes. At its best with episodes like The Best of Both Worlds, TNG is absolutely untouchable, but its worst episodes are horribly-written, badly-conceived and even outright racist (Code of Honour put off future Trek writer Brannon Braga from even watching the show). In addition, although TNG does pay more attention to continuity than the original show (or even Voyager), it still hits the reset button and avoids exploring the consequences of major character moments too easily.

Check Out: The Measure of a Man, Q Who?, Sins of the Father, Yesterday's Enterprise, Deja Q, The Best of Both Worlds (Parts 1 and 2), Family, The Inner Light, Tapestry, All Good Things, most of Seasons 3-6.
Avoid at All Costs: Code of Honour, Justice, Up the Long Ladder, Genesis, Sub Rosa, most of Seasons 1, 2 and 7.

The cast of Deep Space Nine: Lt. Commander Worf (Michael Dorn), Lt. Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell), Chief Engineer Miles O'Brien (Colm Meaney), Dr. Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig), Quark (Armin Shimmerman), Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), Security Chief Odo (Rene Auberjonois), Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) and Jake Sisko (Cirroc Lofton).

1. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Created by Rick Berman and Michael Piller Produced by Rick Berman, Michael Piller and Ira Steven Behr • Aired 3 January 1993-2 June 1999 • 7 seasons 176 episodes

Timeframe: AD 2369-75

Premise: After forty years of brutal occupation, the Cardassian Union has withdrawn from the planet Bajor, leaving it exhausted and devastated. The Federation agrees to provide assistance, directing relief efforts from an abandoned Cardassian space station, Terok Nor, which they rename Deep Space Nine. When a stable wormhole linking Bajor to the remote Gamma Quadrant of the galaxy is discovered, Bajor and Deep Space Nine become the most important locations in Federation space. When a hostile alien government in the Gamma Quadrant, the Dominion, stages an invasion of Federation space, it also becomes the flashpoint for the most devastating war in the Federation's history.

Assessment: When Deep Space Nine started in 1993 it was seen as The Next Generation's slightly crazy spin-off. That hasn't entirely changed in the quarter-century since then. It's the only Star Trek series not predominantly set on a starship, it doesn't feature too much boldly going where no-one has gone before and the cast is the most eclectic, oddball collection of characters ever assembled for a Trek series. It also had a perceived rivalry with another space station-set SF show, the conceptually bolder Babylon 5, which at the time it was felt that DS9 had lost.

History, on the other hand, has been much kinder to Deep Space Nine. The fact it's set on a space station is something it turns to its advantage, gradually accumulating a very large cast of secondary and recurring characters that really makes its corner of the Federation feel like a real, lived-in place. It explores the themes and ideas of the Star Trek universe in exacting - even uncomfortable - depth. It even has a cast of recurring, brilliantly-realised villains in the last couple of seasons. It takes a long look at the ideals of Star Trek, tests them, but often finds that they are still valid. Deep Space Nine is, indeed, the "darkest" incarnation of Star Trek but it is still full of hope and optimism, even at the bloodiest heights of the Dominion War in Seasons 6 and 7.

This is also the most mature and progressive installment of Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry liked to talk up a good fight, how he was going to be more inclusive and show gay people and stronger female characters in the Star Trek universe, but he always retreated from doing it. Deep Space Nine faced an uphill battle to even include two women kissing briefly, but at least it made the attempt. It also tackled issues like racism and social inequality head-on, never more powerfully in stories like Far Beyond the Stars.

No other Star Trek series matches DS9 for its organic, beautifully-played character growth across the series. There was also the attitude it took to entire races. It explored the spirituality and religion of Bajor, it made the Klingons a little scarier and more alien again and it rehabilitiated the Ferengi, whose sexism and misogyny had been played a little too much for laughs on TNG even when it got uncomfortable.

But for a show that could be the most serious Trek series it is also the most hilarious. Trials and Tribbleations (in which Forrest Gump-style technology is used to integrate the DS9 crew into footage from the original series) is hands-down the funniest episode of the entire franchise, with scenes including Worf's deadpan description of the genocidal war launched by the Klingon Empire against the tribbles, Bashir urgently trying to convince O'Brien he should sleep with a woman in case she's his own great-grandmother and he needs to ensure his own existence, and Dax throwing tribbles out of a storage compartment to hit Captain Kirk on the head. In the Cards is a more subtle episode which gently takes the mickey out of the Federation's hippy ideology ("We work to better ourselves, and all of humanity," "What does that mean, exactly?" "It means we haven't got any money!"). Little Green Men posits Quark as being the Roswell alien and somehow makes it work. Our Man Bashir has Dr. Bashir posing as a James Bond-style spy in a holosuite adventure that goes badly wrong.

Finally, Deep Space Nine has the finest space battles, some of the finest lines and some of the greatest moments in the history of Star Trek. It needed The Original Series and The Next Generation to lead the way and blaze the trail, of course, but for now Deep Space Nine remains the crowning achievement of the Star Trek franchise on screen.

Check Out: Duet, The Jem'Hadar, The Way of the Warrior, The Visitor, Little Green Men, Our Man Bashir, Trials and Tribbleations, In Purgatory's Shadow, By Inferno's Light, In the Cards, Call to Arms, Sacrifice of Angels, Far Beyond the Stars, In the Pale Moonlight, The Siege of AR-558, What You Leave Behind and most of the entire show (but especially Seasons 3-7).

Avoid at All Costs: Profit and Lace, Let He Who Is Without Sin.

The question now, of course, is where the new TV series, Star Trek: Discovery, will fit into the list.