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Friday, 17 November 2017

BABYLON 5: Season 3, Episodes 1-2

Season 3: Point of No Return

“The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. It failed.
“But, in the year of the Shadow War, it became something greater: our last, best hope for victory.
“The year is 2260. The place: Babylon 5.”
       - Earthforce Commander Susan Ivanova

Regular Cast
Captain John Sheridan                                    Bruce Boxleitner
Commander Susan Ivanova                            Claudia Christian
Security Chief Michael Garibaldi                   Jerry Doyle
Ambassador Delenn                                        Mira Furlan
Dr. Stephen Franklin                                       Richard Biggs
Marcus Cole                                                    Jason Carter
Security Aide Zack Allan                               Jeff Conaway
Vir Cotto                                                         Stephen Furst
Lennier                                                            Bill Mumy
G’Kar                                                              Andreas Katsulas
Ambassador Londo Mollari                            Peter Jurasik

Creator                                                            J. Michael Straczynski
Producer                                                          John Copeland
Executive Producers                                       J. Michael Straczynski & Douglas Netter
Conceptual Consultant                                   Harlan Ellison
Production Designer                                       John Iacovelli
Costume Designer                                          Anne Bruice-Aling
Visual Effects Designer                                  Ron Thornton
Visual Effects Producers                                Foundation Imaging
Makeup Supervisor                                        John Vulich
Makeup Producers                                         Optic Nerve Studios
Music Composer                                            Christopher Franke
Music Performers                         Christopher Franke & the Berlin Symphonic Film Orchestra

Between-Season Changes

Unlike the previous year, the changes between Season 2 and Season 3 were relatively restrained. The biggest change was that J. Michael Straczynski decided during the planning of the season that he would write all 22 episodes himself. This was because the situation in the show fluctuated rapidly over the course of the season and there wasn’t enough time to fit in more than a couple of stand-alone episodes, so it was simply easier for JMS himself to write them all. This move saw the leave-taking of script editor Lawrence G. DiTillio from the show, since JMS notoriously refused to let anyone tamper with his scripts after he had finished them. Larry went on to write scripts for cult CGI series Transformers: Beast Wars and would later return to write an episode of Crusade.

Straczynski claimed that his decision to write all of Season 3 – and late Season 4 and most of Season 5 – set a record for the largest number of cumulative episodes written by a single writer. In total, Straczynski wrote 52 sequential episodes of Babylon 5, running from B17 through to E3. However, the subsequent episode E4 was still co-written by Straczynski (with Harlan Ellison). Including that episode, the correct cumulative tally is (running up to episode E7, as E8 was written by Neil Gaiman) 56 episodes and 41 hours, including the entirety of Seasons 3 and 4.

Although this is almost certainly an American record, it is not a world record: as noted by Andy Lane in his seminal Babylon File, British writer Ted Willis wrote nine complete seasons of British police drama Dixon of Dock Green – 201 episodes and 113.5 hours – between 1955 and 1963.

On the cast front the biggest move was the departure of Andrea Thompson as Talia Winters and the introduction of Jason Carter as Ranger Marcus Cole. Thompson actually left in episode B19 since she was disappointed at the amount of screen time she was getting in Season 2 (and, from the look of it, she would have had even less to do in Season 3). At the BabCom ’96 convention she revealed she would be willing to make one-off appearances to resolve her storyline, but Straczynski chose a clean break and only rarely referred to her character again. The character of Marcus came in as a “free-roaming” agent separate from the Earthforce personnel and able to do things those in the military couldn’t. He also provided Ivanova with a new sparring partner, resulting in some nice dialogue scenes between them.

Between seasons Stephen Furst was offered a regular role in a sitcom called Misery Loves Company. Furst preferred to remain on Babylon 5, as it was a serious and more dramatic role, but Misery was also more money and gave him many more episodes to appear in. He discussed the situation with Straczynski who noted that the shooting schedules for the two shows, both filmed in Los Angeles, also allowed the possibility of Furst doing both shows; as a result, Furst was allowed to depart the show in episode C3 and return in C12 when shooting was completed (he was also able to fit in a couple of other appearances inbetween). Misery was not picked up for a back season order, so Furst was able to return full-time.

Season 3 was originally going to be called I am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds, taken from a Hindu saying and quoted by Professor Oppenheimer upon the detonation of the first atom bomb in July 1945 at Los Alamos, New Mexico. JMS realised this was too apocalyptic (and was better suited to the following season, though he chose not to use it there either) and changed it. His next choice was War Without End, but thought this over-emphasised the Shadow War which didn’t start until the last third of the season. He eventually settled on Point of No Return.

The CGI effects were upgraded again between-seasons, this time resulting in a much more believable and impressive explosion effect and higher-resolution shots. The time needed to render scenes also dropped slightly, which was a good thing as several episodes pushed Foundation Imaging to the edge of their abilities in rendering space battles and composite shots. However, the relationship between Foundation Imaging and Babylon Productions began to strain somewhat this season, with several errors in episodes C8 and C10, the result of a higher workload for the effects team with no corresponding rise in pay (which forced Foundation Imaging to take on more work outside of Babylon 5). This relationship would break down altogether between Seasons 3 and 4, and we will cover that in the episode guide for next season.

The title sequence for this season was once again changed. A collection of scenes from previous seasons were used along with a new, slow fly-past of the station with the actors appearing out of jump points. The first pass of the title sequence had the White Star flying at the camera with weapons blazing, but J. Michael Straczynski didn’t like the shot and asked for it to be redone with the final shot of the ship spinning around. Preview tapes of the first two episodes went out with the original shot still included, however.

Christopher Franke provided a new title theme for this season, rather than simply creating a new version of the same tune as with the first two seasons. The new theme melds elements of “Requiem for the Line” from episode A8 and the music used for both the Shadow battle and the bombing of the Narn homeworld from episode B20. The original theme music was used for the end credits of episodes C1-C4 before being replaced from episode C5 onwards; the original UK broadcast, however, had the new theme music used throughout the season.


Red Dwarf XII

The mining ship Red Dwarf continues on its long quest to return home, its dysfunctional crew consisting of the last human being alive, a hologram of his superior officer, a neurotic cleaning droid and a lifeform descended from the ship's cat.

In 2018 Red Dwarf will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary, making it comfortably the longest-running SF comedy show of all time (and one of the longest-running SF shows full stop, with only Doctor Who and Star Trek now outliving it). There are several reasons for its longevity: a core cast of four charismatic performers, a strong sense of humour that riffs on both human nature and cutting-edge scientific ideas and multi-year breaks between seasons that allow both the cast and writers to refresh themselves and come back with renewed energy. So whilst the show started thirty years ago, it's only now concluding its twelfth season.

The twelfth season is of a pair with last year's eleventh, written and filmed alongside it and recorded at the same time. This raised the spectre that writer Doug Naylor (alas, co-creator and co-writer of the show's golden age Rob Grant remains absent) might be burned out or tired, but this is not the case. Season 12 is, if anything, slightly better than Season 11, with fewer weaker moments and some much funnier moments rooted in both character (always Naylor's weak spot compared to Grant) and SF.

The season starts off well with Cured, which asks the question if people can be "cured" of evil and results in a classic Red Dwarf story beat where Lister jams on electric guitar with a "good" clone of Adolf Hitler. Siliconia, where Kryten is "rescued" from slavery by fellow mechanoids, is a bit throwaway but does have some great sight gags and does lean into the SF trope of the "happy slave" who is programmed to enjoy their treatment (something it'd be interested to see Star Wars address at some point).

The season's weakest episode is Timewave, set on a ship where criticism has been outlawed, which isn't as funny as it wants to be and has some very lazy gags. Mechocracy, in which the machines on Red Dwarf go on strike and Rimmer and Kryten stage an election to win back their loyalty, is solid if forgettable.

The season saves the best for last: M-Corp is a satirical take on Apple which could have felt lazy but actually steps up to being amusing and also makes some nice, intelligent points about (literally) blind brand loyalty and giving corporations ownership of everything. Skipper, the best episode of the season and possibly the last six seasons, taps into the well of Rimmer's self-loathing and disappointment in a way that hasn't been done since Grant was still on board. Although the episode suffers from some continuity issues (the show apparently forgetting that the events of Seasons 7 and 8 happened, and the existence of Ace Rimmer), it is extremely funny and brings back some fan-favourite characters without overusing them to boot.

The cast are a well-oiled machine at this point, the guest stars do a good job (although Johnny Vegas's guest appearance feels a bit incongruous) and the show does a lot with what is clearly a limited budget, a "problem" which I suspect has resulted in the show's improved quality since the relatively high-budget days of Seasons 7-9, since it forces a reliance on better dialogue and ideas rather than flashy visual effects.

For a TV show about to enter its fourth decade, Red Dwarf (****) is in surprisingly rude health. Superior to the previous two seasons (which were okay, if not outstanding) and certainly far better than the three weak seasons before that, the twelfth season of the show sees it getting back to, if not its best, certainly not far off. The season will be available from 21 November 2017 on Blu-Ray (UK, USA) and DVD (UK, USA).

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Idea: why not adapt Guy Gavriel Kay's novels for the screen?

Fantasy is big right now. We've heard lots of news about Amazon's new Lord of the Rings TV project, Game of Thrones is wrapping up but will have spin-offs, Netflix is producing a Witcher TV show, Showtime are doing a Name of the Wind prequel show, Starz have American Gods and even Spike TV is still trying to make Shannara happen. There are signs that the fantasy bubble may be cresting - Sony's Wheel of Time project still hasn't found a home despite it being a slam dunk - but I think there's still room for a few different projects out there.

One author whose work has not hit the screens yet is Guy Gavriel Kay. It's easy to see why: Kay's novels tend to be too long to make for comfortable two-hour movies, but too short and too self-contained for long-running TV shows that can be exploited for years on end. His books are also based closely on real history with (relatively) little traditional magic, which used to make them a tough sell. However, it could be a point in its favour with some of the other upcoming projects having a lot more magic and the need for high budgets, whilst Kay's work could be adapted a bit more easily and could tap into the Game of Thrones fanbase looking for more work that emphasises politics and characters over flashy effects.

One interesting solution would be to do Kay's novels as a Fargo-style anthology series, where each season has its own storyline, characters and actors but take place in the same universe, with events earlier in the setting informing events set centuries later. It would be an unorthodox approach, but could be interesting.

I'd see this series unfolding as follows, with each season corresponding to a novel (or series) with the setting and time period that roughly influenced the book following:

Season 1: The Sarantine Mosaic, 6th Century Byzantium, Justinian's wars
Season 2: Under Heaven, 8th Century China, An Lushan Rebellion
Season 3: The Last Light of the Sun, 9th Century England, Alfred the Great
Season 4: The Lions of Al-Rassan, 11th Century Spain, El Cid
Season 5: River of Stars, 12 Century China, Jin-Song Wars
Season 6: Children of Earth and Sky, 15th Century Dubrovnik, after the fall of Constantinople

It might also be possible to incorporate A Song for Arbonne, which takes place in a different world but is heavily influenced by the Albigensian Crusade in 12th Century France, into this scheme.

Tigana, although influenced by Renaissance Italy, features a very different world background with much more overt magic. It would probably be better served by a separate movie adaptation. The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy and its stand-alone sequel, Ysabel, could form another, separate TV series.

To date, the only interest in Kay's work has been from director Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond), who held the rights to The Lions of Al-Rassan for a while. Hopefully someone will pick up the rights to Kay's work and bring it to a wider audience. One of the finest living fantasists, his work deserves to be better-known.

The new LORD OF THE RINGS TV deal, explained

It's been a busy week or so for Tolkien and TV fans trying to parse the extraordinary news that Amazon TV are developing a television series based on The Lord of the Rings. In the light of more revelations, it may be useful to take stock of what is going on and what might and will happen next.

So what has happened?

In brief, the Tolkien Estate and Trust - the family and company which handles J.R.R. Tolkien's affairs after his death in 1973 - has joined forces with Warner Brothers and its subsidiary New Line (who produced the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, and co-produced the Hobbit film trilogy) to create a new television series based on the Middle-earth works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Amazon Television have greenlit a multi-season commitment to the project, so will be developing the series immediately with a view to it airing within a few years.

What is this TV show about? Is it a remake of the Lord of the Rings movies?

Contrary to early reports, no. The new TV series will apparently be set between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and will use material from the appendices to The Lord of the Rings to flesh out this time period. Possible subjects for the TV show are the adventures of young Aragorn, the gradual corruption of Saruman, the dwarves led by Balin trying to retake Moria, Gollum's hunt for the One Ring, Faramir and Boromir as young solders in the Gondorian army and the childhood adventures of Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin.

If it's not Lord of the Rings, why is it using the Lord of the Rings name?

For legal reasons. Warner Brothers/New Line only have the television rights to The Lord of the Rings, not any of the other Middle-earth books, so will need to use the Lord of the Rings name to signify that. Also, as brand-awareness goes, it's the most attention-grabbing name to use.

Wait, don't they also have the rights to The Hobbit?

The Hobbit's rights are a complex mess (see the "brief history" of the rights below). They were originally owned by United Artists and then picked up by Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) when they took over UA. Warner Brothers and New Line allied with MGM to make the Hobbit trilogy, but by all accounts it was a nightmarish legal process lasting the better part of a decade to get there (which is why there was such as huge gap between The Return of the King and An Unexpected Journey). For this new TV series, Warner Brothers and New Line appear to have taken the view that it is not worth the trouble of aligning with MGM again, so are proceeding solely with material derived from The Lord of the Rings.

What about The Silmarillion?

The Tolkien Estate does not appear to have sold the rights to The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin or Beren and Luthien (the other four of the six canonical Middle-earth books, alongside The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) so these stories remain off-limits for now.

If the Tolkien Estate hasn't sold the rights to The Silmarillion, why are they involved?

This is a more speculative area, because the Tolkien Estate has not made a direct statement (their only comment so far has been through a Hollywood lawyer). Of the Tolkien Estate's members, Christopher Tolkien (J.R.R. Tolkien's eldest surviving son and literary executor) was by far the most vocal in his opposition to adaptations based on J.R.R. Tolkien's work. However, Christopher resigned in August this year and it appears that the other board members are far less vociferous in their objections: Priscilla Tolkien (Christopher's younger sister), for example, advised Ralph Bakshi on his animated version of The Lord of the Rings in 1978 and Simon Tolkien (Christopher's eldest son) supported Peter Jackson's movie trilogy.

In addition, the Tolkien Estate had to go to court several times to defend its rights in different matters relating to both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, matters which may not have arisen had the Estate been more closely involved from the start. The rest of the Estate may have also taken the view that if this adaptation is proceeding anyway, they might as well take a role to try to exercise a positive influence on the process.

How long will the series be?

The commitment by Amazon is apparently for five seasons and a potential spin-off show.

What is the deal costing?

Amazon had to pay between $200 million and $250 million for the rights up-front, along with certain guarantees for how much money they would put into the series budget. Apparently the per-season budget is guaranteed at between $100 million and $150 million, although the number of episodes per season has not yet been decided. Assuming the $250 million and $150 million figures are accurate, this deal will cost Amazon approximately $1 billion, or almost twice the total cost of Game of Thrones on HBO. This would make the series comfortably the most expensive TV show ever made.

Is anyone from the Jackson movie series involved?

At the moment, no. Apparently Amazon has not spoken to or approached director Peter Jackson, writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, artists John Howe and Alan Lee, Weta Workshop or any actors or crew involved in the making of either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings at all.

Will the series use the movie art design, sets, effects, actors or other elements?

Given Warner Brother/New Line's involvement, that certainly is possible. However, you'd assume they would be trying to get on board the talent from the films if that is the case. In addition, it's now eighteen years since the movie trilogy entered production. For a TV series set before the original trilogy, it would be difficult to "de-age" actors for recurring roles on a regular, ongoing basis.

It's more likely that the series will focus on new castmembers playing younger versions of the film characters and will re-cast roles where necessary.

Will the new series be filmed in New Zealand or elsewhere?

That has yet to be decided. New Zealand would remain the most logical place to shoot the series, but it might be that an argument could also be made for Canada, especially since the production would have the budget to move out of the "within two hours' drive of Vancouver or Toronto" range that a lot of Canadian-shot shows are restricted to. Another possibility would be Eastern Europe, particularly places like Hungary and Romania which have emerged with major tax and cost incentives to shoot there.

When will the new TV series air?

Amazon clearly want to deploy this series as their flagship show in the battle with Netflix and the looming threat of Disney's new streaming service, which will launch with a live-action Star Wars TV series in late 2019. Amazon may try to match that launch date, although this would be tight with no creative talent attached to the project yet. 2020 may be more realistic.

Wait, what do you mean no creative talent is attached yet?

In a fairly unprecedented move, Amazon have bought the project without a writer, showrunner, producer, director or any actors attached. Apparently Warner Brothers and the Tolkien Estate are happy for the network to assemble a creative team themselves. When talks were in progress with HBO, HBO proposed using Jane Tranter's Bad Wolf Productions (which HBO has a stake in) company to handle the series, but when discussions stalled that option appears to have disappeared.

What was HBO's involvement?

This TV deal was proposed to HBO, Netflix and Amazon, since it was (correctly) assumed that they would be the only three companies with deep enough pockets to entertain the deal. HBO turned the project down for cost and because of their commitment to their ongoing Game of Thrones franchise (although GoT is due to end in late 2018/early 2019, HBO has multiple spin-off shows in development). Netflix also appears to have balked at the cost, offering $100 million instead for the rights and being outbid by Amazon. Netflix also have their own epic fantasy TV show in development, based on the Witcher novels and short stories by Andrzej Sapkowski.

A Brief(ish) History of the Middle-earth Movie and TV Rights

J.R.R. Tolkien (b. 1892) created Middle-earth in or around 1916, when he began writing a book eventually entitled The Silmarillion, a collection of fictional legends and stories set in a fantasy land called Middle-earth. Tolkien spent the rest of his life developing The Silmarillion and died in 1973 with the book still incomplete. However, he used the incomplete "Legendarium" as a source for two novels published in his lifetime: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien wrote The Hobbit between around 1930 and 1936, and it was published in 1937. He then wrote the much longer Lord of the Rings between 1937 and 1947, spent two years editing it and a further five years trying to get it published; it finally appeared in three volumes in 1954 and 1955 and was a modest initial success. However, a very public and famous copyright battle erupted in 1965 when an American publisher, Ace, released an unauthorised paperback edition of the book. Tolkien and his publishers won the battle and many curious readers, particularly in the United States, picked up the novel. Thanks to strong word-of-mouth and an adoption by the 1960s counter-culture, the novel's sales exploded worldwide between 1965 and 1969.

In 1969 Tolkien, keen to ensure the financial security of his grandchildren, sold the screen rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to United Artists for a significant sum and these rights were then further acquired by producer Saul Zaentz in 1976. However, United Artists believed that anyone wanting to adapt the books would need to start with The Hobbit and saw it as the more valuable asset. Accordingly, United Artists sold only the full screen and production rights to The Lord of the Rings to Zaentz and held onto distribution rights to The Hobbit. These rights were acquired by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1981 when they bought United Artists (who were in danger of going bust after the massive failure of the movie Heaven's Gate).

Zaentz and UA collaborated to allow the production of a cartoon version of The Hobbit with animation studio Rankin/Bass in 1977 and an animated version of The Lord of the Rings in 1978 with Ralph Bakshi. When the producers could not agree on terms to make a second part of The Lord of the Rings, they parted ways and Zaentz, US and Rankin/Bass reconvened to make an animated sequel called The Return of the King in 1980. However, by the mid-1980s the rights to The Lord of the Rings had reverted to Zaentz whilst UA/MGM retained some rights to The Hobbit.

In 1995 New Zealand film-maker Peter Jackson began considering plans for a Tolkien trilogy. He proposed a one-film adaptation of The Hobbit and a two-movie version of The Lord of the Rings. Several studios expressed an interest, but most notably Miramax, the studio owned by the Weinstein Brothers. Miramax spoke to Zaentz and found him willing to sell the rights, but quickly became aware of the MGM stake in The Hobbit rights. Miramax was unable to meet MGM's price for The Hobbit rights and suggested that Jackson proceed with The Lord of the Rings alone. Later Miramax, suffering financial problems, reduced the scope of the proposed film from two movies to one. Jackson was unable to comply, but found a new partner in the shape of New Line Cinema, who not only embraced the project but gave Jackson three movies to adapt The Lord of the Rings. The three movies were released between 2001 and 2003 and grossed just under $3 billion at the box office, becoming a cultural phenomenon. New Line licensed the film rights to The Lord of the Rings and also production rights to The Hobbit from Zaentz for an unclear period of time, but it seems to have extended into the early-to-mid 2010s.

In 2008 Warner Brothers bought out New Line and inherited their licensed rights. With considerably deeper pockets, they moved to ally with MGM and secured the rights to make The Hobbit. Originally Jackson and director Guillermo Del Toro planned a two-film version of The Hobbit and a third "bridging movie" linking The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings, drawing on the appendices in the latter. However, Warner Brothers got cold feet on this idea, eventually insisting on three movies based on the very short Hobbit (which is only one-fifth the length of The Lord of the Rings). Del Toro quit the project and Peter Jackson was persuaded to take over at short notice, resulting in the Hobbit trilogy of movies released between 2012 and 2014. The trilogy took slightly more money than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but on a much higher budget and the critical reception was lukewarm in comparison.

Meanwhile, when J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973 his literary rights were inherited by his third son and literary executor, Christopher. Christopher, working alongside several assistants (most notably Guy Gavriel Kay, a future, highly accomplished fantasy author in his own right), assembled his father's incomplete manuscripts to publish The Silmarillion in 1977. A further collection of short stories, essays, maps and background information on Middle-earth was published as Unfinished Tales in 1980. Along with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, these two books would be considered part of the Tolkien "canon" (although debate would continue to surround the later two books due to Christopher's editorial choices, some of which he himself would later regret). Christopher Tolkien also published the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series, which collects every early draft, abandoned fragment and partial manuscript ever written by Tolkien on the subject of Middle-earth. Later on, drawing from the same material, Christopher Tolkien would produce The Children of Hurin (2007) and Beren and Luthien (2017), fleshing out episodes from The Silmarillion into longer stories.

Christopher, as J.R.R. Tolkien's literary executor, was 100% adamant that he would never sell the film or TV rights to The Silmarillion or the other posthumous material and this remained constant, right up to Christopher resigning as head of the Tolkien Estate in August 2017. At present the film and television rights to those books have still not been sold, but with Christopher's departure it might be that this changes at some point in the future.

One thing that is clear is that Christopher's departure and Amazon's entry to the TV market are both gamechangers for the fields of fantasy and television.

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Christopher Tolkien resigns as head of the Tolkien Estate

In news which suddenly explains a lot of what's been going on in the last week or two, it's been confirmed that Christopher Tolkien, the third son and literary executor of J.R.R. Tolkien, has resigned his position as head of the Tolkien Estate at the age of 92.

Christopher Tolkien has been the literary heir to his father's writings, particularly those set in Middle-earth. However, he has rejected substantial sums of money to continue his father's work and write new material in the setting. Instead, he has restricted himself to editing and presenting his father's unpublished work for public consumption. This has resulted in two further canonical (or mostly so) books in the Middle-earth legendarium: The Silmarillion (1977) and Unfinished Tales (1980). He has also edited and published The Children of Hurin (2007) and Beren and Luthien (2017), episodes from The Silmarillion that Tolkien fleshed out with more detail but had not completed before his death in 1973. Christopher Tolkien arranged for them to be published by combining multiple drafts and narratives into single stories.

Between 1983 and 1996 Christopher Tolkien also published The History of Middle-earth, a twelve-volume series which published every single early draft, fragment and writing of J.R.R. Tolkien's on the subject of Middle-earth and showed the development of the legendarium from the earliest concepts right through to ideas and material Tolkien was working on at the time of his death (including, even, a brief idea for a sequel to The Lord of the Rings which he soon abandoned).

Christopher Tolkien's position as head of the Tolkien Estate and Trust means that he has made all of the major business decisions related to the properties of J.R.R. Tolkien. J.R.R. Tolkien sold the film, TV and merchandising rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in 1969 (from which New Line and Warner Brothers got the rights to make the Peter Jackson movies), but Christopher has refused to sell similar rights to the other Middle-earth books despite some very generous offers from studios. Other senior members of the Tolkien trust include his younger sister Priscilla, his nephew Michael and his second son Adam, along with Christopher's second wife, Baillie. Christopher Tolkien famously disapproved of the Peter Jackson movies and even ostracised his eldest son Simon and his nephew Royd when they approved of the films and even accepted cameo roles during filming (Simon has since reconciled with his father and is now formally part of the Tolkien Estate).

Christopher resigned from the Tolkien Estate on 31 August 2017. The proposed Amazon television series has been in the offing for at least a couple of months, so Christopher's retirement seems to have coincided with a desire by the Estate to be more open to the idea of adaptations: Priscilla Tolkien approved of the 1978 Ralph Bakshi animated movie and even provided some advice to the film-maker, whilst the other members of the Estate seem to have wanted to take greater oversight to, amongst other things, avoid the legal problems that cropped up several times between 2004 (when they began legal action to get the film finances properly audited) and this year, when they concluded a legal action begun over the use of Tolkien characters in slot and gambling machines, rights which were not included in the original 1969 deal.

The question now is if the Holy Grail - the rights to The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales - will be made available. They haven't so far and it might be disrespectful to Christopher Tolkien to discuss this whilst he remains alive (due to his staunch opposition in the past), but it might be now that doors that once seemed firmly locked and closed are now, at least, slightly ajar.

One thing is certain: that all fans of fantasy literature owe Christopher Tolkien a tremendous debt and thanks for ensuring his father's work reached appreciative readers and in a way that was respectful and of the highest integrity.

AMC to air Dan Simmons' THE TERROR in Spring 2018

AMC's drama series The Terror, based on the Dan Simmons novel, is provisionally scheduled to air in April 2018. It will air on AMC in the United States and on Amazon in most of the rest of the world.

AMC are working on The Terror as an anthology format, similar to Fargo or American Horror Story. The first season will adapt Simmons' novel across 10 episodes; later seasons will either be original stories or adaptations of other books with a horror or supernatural twist. The first season has been written by David Kajganich

The first season will star Jared Harris as Francis Crozier, Tobias Menzies (Outlander, Game of Thrones) as James Fitzjames and Ciaran Hinds as John Franklin. The story follows the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, an attempt to find the Northwest Passage around Canada using two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. In real life, the two ships were trapped by ice and the crew are believed to have perished from starvation and exposure; Simmons' novel provides an alternate, supernatural explanation.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Ideas for the new LORD OF THE RINGS TV series

Amazon have confirmed they are collaborating with Warner Brothers, New Line Cinema and the Tolkien Estate on a new Middle-earth TV show set between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Lots of ideas have been floated about what the show could be about, so I've come up with a few possibilities (click for bigger versions).

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy was a critical and commercial success, but the absence of one fan-favourite character still rankles with some Middle-earth appreciators. The new show would be an opportunity for this old wrong to be put right.

Did Bilbo Baggins just spend sixty years kicking back in Bag End and counting his money? Hell no, he kept himself busy by investigating crime in the Shire, to the despair of the Michel Delving Shirrifs.

Elrond Half-elven provides life advice and assistance through the medium of explaining backstory in sonorous monologues, with occasional dramatic peaks.

"Elrond, what can I do about my relationship woes?"
"Your relationship must be ended, for the good of the world of men. One of you must do this."

"Elrond, my boss is a total arsehole. What can I do about him?"
"You must cast him back into the fiery chasm from whence he came!"

"Elrond, loot boxes in video games suck! What should we do about them?"
"I fear this evil cannot be held back by the strength of the elves alone. And now you tell me that Electronic Arts has joined the enemy? Our list of allies grows thin."

Expensive CGI will be used to de-age David Wenham and Sean Bean so we can enjoy this story of two brothers (and their domineering father) as they do...stuff in Gondor.

Five wizards are here to mess up your jam. CGI will be used to recreate Christopher Lee, whilst his dialogue will be provided by simply mining words from every film he's ever appeared in. Ian McKellan and Sylvester McCoy star. With two other guys (whose names will only be mentioned if the Tolkien Estate is paid a lot of money for the rights to Unfinished Tales).

The surprisingly affordable Orlando Bloom plays everyone's favourite shield-skating elven warrior who shows up when it's least expected and most jarringly inconsistent with the canon.

Spinning off from the video game Middle-earth: Shadow of War, this series will explore the backstory of Shelob who, it turns out, can manifest as an attractive human woman. Who knew?

This Ent-focused conservation programme, voiced over by David Attenborough, will fuse almost-thrilling episodes where the Ents discuss a problem for hours on end with notes on the shameful deforestation of Fangorn Forest and destruction of the surrounding ecosystem.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The Cities of Fantasy series is debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read it there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Star Trek: Discovery - Season 1.0

Stardate 1207.3: 11 May, 2256. The USS Shenzhou stumbles across an immense, ancient Klingon ship. The confrontation ends in violence and the outbreak of full-scale war between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire. Disgraced Starfleet officer Michael Burnham is forcibly recruited into the crew of the experimental USS Discovery, a cutting-edge research ship which may have found a weapon to use against the Klingons...if it doesn't destroy the ship first.

Being the first new Star Trek show in twelve years, and being the first in a third generation of shows for the franchise (after the original show and the Rick Berman/24th Century era), it's unsurprising that Discovery has come under a lot of scrutiny. The show has been dogged by controversy, first for airing in the United States on a paid streaming service without much other compelling content and then for egregiously redesigning the Klingons for no readily apparent reason. In the midst of delays to shooting and broadcast, showrunner Bryan Fuller left and there was a shake-up in the creative team behind the scenes.

Bearing in mind the chaos behind the scenes, Star Trek: Discovery's first season (or half-season) ends up being a relatively entertaining and fresh spin on the franchise. It's not the triumphant, high-quality return that fans were hoping for and the show is dogged by minor issues, but given the quality of most of the Trek first seasons (such as The Next Generation's terrible first few episodes and DS9's okay-but-slightly-dull opening hours), Discovery does not fare too badly at all.

First up, the show is visually spectacular. It has, hands down, the best sets of any Trek show to date and the production value and design of them is highly impressive (even if the rooms are a bit big for such a small ship, but okay). The quality of the CGI is remarkable, more than worthy of comparison with big-budget feature films, although it can be a bit murky and underlit. The new ship designs are a mix of the impressive and underwhelming, but they get the job done. This is the most expensive Star Trek show ever and every penny of that gets put on screen.

Cast-wise, there's little to complain about. Sonequa Martin-Green makes for an interesting protagonist, playing Michael Burnham - a human raised by Vulcans - with a good mix of emotional repression and intelligence, which sometimes results in her making bad decisions. A common complaint is that Burnham is not as immediately likeable as previous Trek protagonists, which may be true but she's certainly more human and more relateable. The season arc, which has Burnham disgraced by a bad call in the first episode and then learning from it, is reasonably successful (if obvious).

Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter, The Death of Stalin) plays Captain Lorca, a decidedly murky figure who is prepared to take risks and break regulations to get things done. He's not quite as far removed from previous Trek captains as some seem to think - under a similar wartime situation, Sisko broke the regulations on a fairly high number of occasions and Janeway threw the rulebook away after a while - but it's surprisingly to see a morally conflicted protagonist in the captain's chair from very early in the season. Lorca feels more like one of those slightly dodgy Star Trek admirals or captains who showed up from time to time (like Pressman or Leyton) for a single episode, we've just got him here for the whole season which allows for better character development. Isaacs is a charismatic and skilled actor who portrays Lorca as a damaged person who sometimes loses sight of the greater values and morals of Starfleet in his quest for victory.

Anthony Rapp plays Lt. Paul Stamets, a brilliant scientist with some interpersonal relationship issues who is frustrated with his role in the war. Rapp gives Stamets a certain nervous energy and arrogance which works really well and makes him sympathetic even when he's being insufferable. Doug Jones is also phenomenally good as Discovery's first officer, Saru, giving him a genuinely strange, alien quality that previous Star Trek protagonists have not quite managed. He's this show's take on Data or Spock and in that regard works very well.

The rest of the cast is very good, although they feel comparatively under-developed: a couple of recognisable actors are cast in apparently major roles just to get killed off for shock value, which feels a bit weird. Mary Wiseman gives Cadet Tilly a lot of energy and charisma, but after a couple of promising episodes she isn't given much to do (and an intriguing early suggestion that Tilly has special needs, which would be a first for the franchise, seems to have been dropped and forgotten about pretty quickly). Shazad Latif as a PTSD-suffering security officer is also very promising, if a late addition to the team. Less successful are the Klingon actors: they may be very good, but they are hamstrung by awkward prosthetics and having to speak almost all their lines in Klingon, which some are much better at than others. Of the recurring characters, Rainn Wilson also impresses as a younger version of classic Trek villain Harry Mudd.

In terms of writing and the quality of the episodes, Discovery is certainly never less than watchable, but in the early going struggles to find its tone and identity. The show has been criticised for being "dark and gritty", which is not really appropriate for the Star Trek franchise. It isn't really, certainly not compared to say the Battlestar Galactica reboot or even the darker moments of Deep Space Nine, and some episodes are downright goofy. We've had mysterious alien energy beings, characters being "weirdly affected" by space phenomena, hints at parallel universes and timelines, space battles resolved with a barrage of photon torpedoes and some really bizarre plot ideas (interdimensional tardigrades powering instantaneous FTL jumps?!) that would be at home in any previous incarnation of Star Trek. The show does have something of a darker tone - something that does feel incompatible with the more humourous moments - but it's certainly not gone full grimdark on us. The Federation is at war with the Klingons, as it was widely believed it was in this timeframe, resulting in the normal Starfleet mission of exploration and contact being suspended in favour of trying to achieve a military victory and a peace treaty, so clearly the show is not going to be as relaxed and cheery as perhaps other series could afford to be.

The result is a show that is giving us something we haven't seen before - a war story in the Star Trek universe from the perspective of a ship on the front line (DS9's Dominion War was mostly depicted from a space station far from the action). It's a bold choice and one that mostly works, with the interesting choice of giving us both sides of the struggle. Several episodes focus on the Klingon side of the conflict, particularly how an idealistic crusade was begun by a visionary martyr and continued by his underestimated subordinate before being supplanted by a grasping politician. It's a nice idea which would work a lot better if the new Klingon makeup allowed the actors to emote, and if, as mentioned before, they weren't being forced to speak all of their dialogue in Klingon (a nice idea that soon becomes irritating as it slows the action to a crawl). But it's certainly different.

Criticisms have been made of the show regarding its status as a prequel to the original series. Discovery ostensibly takes place in the original (or "Prime") timeline shared by all previous Star Trek shows (and which J.J. Abrams' movies have deviated from) but it's also a visual and aesthetic reboot, with new ship designs, the new and decidedly unsuccessful look for the Klingons and a blatantly higher level of technology than is strictly era-appropriate, complete with lots of holograms. However, clunky button interfaces and classic-ish designs for phasers, communicators and tricorders do at least nod at the right timeframe. As it stands, the show fits into existing canon a little awkwardly but not quite as badly as some commentators suggest. One clever writing moment even explains Sarek's fury with Spock in the original series a lot better and the musings on ethical behaviour, codes of conduct and the unfolding of a bloody war between the Federation and Klingons do feel like they're setting up the original series in a reasonably effective manner. There's still a lot of work to do here, but previews of later episodes do suggest that he show will continue to dovetail towards the original series in other aspects of design.

Star Trek: Discovery's first half-season (***½) gets off to a reasonable start, despite some clunky writing, a terrible new design for the Klingons (which needs to be amended stat) and some awkward continuity issues. But as the season continues, the show gains confidence and starts leaning on the canon and its excellent cast to deliver more effective and interesting stories. It's certainly not the franchise at its best, but these are comfortably the best opening nine episodes of any Star Trek series to date.

Star Trek: Discovery's first nine episodes are available to view now on CBS All Access in the United States and Netflix in most of the rest of the world. The show will return for six episodes in January 2018.

Monday, 13 November 2017

LORD OF THE RINGS prequel TV show greenlit by Amazon

Further to the story from last week, Amazon TV have formally greenlit the Lord of the Rings TV series being shopped around by Amazon. Expanding on the more confusing parts of the deal, the new TV series will not, as previously reported be a remake of Peter Jackson's film trilogy. Instead it will focus on events that took place before the novel and movie series. New Line, the subsidiary of Warner Brothers which produced the original movie trilogy, will be involved in the production of the new series.

Amazon have given a "multi-season" commitment to the show, which is likely to displace Game of Thrones as the most expensive ongoing TV series ever made. At the moment it is unclear if the new show will take place in the same canon and continuity as the Peter Jackson movies (and thus use the same production design and perhaps actors if there is some cross-over), but at the moment it appears that the creative talents behind the movies (Jackson and co-writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh) will not be involved in this new project at all.

Most surprising is the confirmation that the Tolkien Estate and Trust will be formally involved in the new project, alongside HarperCollins (the Tolkien Estate's preferred publishing partner for the  books). According to their statement, "the team at Amazon Studios have exceptional ideas to bring to the screen previously unexplored stories based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s original writings." This suggests that the series will drawn on events that took place between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and are only inferred in the book and Tolkien's other writings. This new deal so far does not include access to any of Tolkien's other Middle-earth books, such as The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, but the Estate seems happy for Amazon to create original material based on the existing texts (which, if anything, is even more remarkable).

This is not unprecedented: at one point Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro were planning a "bridging movie" set between a two-movie version of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but these plans collapsed after Warner Brothers insisted on three full movies derived solely from The Hobbit (an ill-advised decision that precipitated Del Toro's departure from the movie trilogy and lukewarm reviews for what Jackson eventually produced). However, Jackson and Del Toro did spend some months developing that idea and it is possible that this series will draw on the same ideas and inspiration.

It'll likely be 2-3 years before we see anything on screen, but as of now Middle-earth is headed back to our screens, backed up by the resources of what could be the biggest TV company on the planet. It'll be interesting to see what they come up with.