Friday, 5 February 2016

The Expanse: Season 1

Two centuries from now, humanity has spread across the Solar system. Mars is independent, its population working together to terraform the planet and building a high-technology society whose capabilities are beginning to outstrip those of Earth. A tense cold war between the two is building with the miners and ice haulers of the asteroid belt caught in the middle.

When a rich heiress goes missing and an ice hauler is destroyed near Saturn, tensions between Earth and Mars threaten to spill over into war. It falls to the survivors of the ice hauler and a determined cop on Ceres to expose the truth: that all of the factions are being manipulated by forces unknown for a much more mysterious, and deadly, reason.

Space operas have been a bit thin on the ground since Battlestar Galactica and Stargate: Universe both ended half a decade ago. Since then TV SF has largely restrained itself to near-future techno-thrillers like Fringe and Person of Interest. However, SyFy is now leading the fight back. It has launched two new space opera shows, Dark Matter and Killjoys, but these are relatively low-budget affairs. The Expanse is different. It's a big-budget, flagship, tentpole show designed firmly to recapture the BSG audience with its take on politics, war and human nature. It's also based on a popular series of novels by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (writing as James S.A. Corey), which should minimise concerns about the writers and producers not having "a plan" for future episodes and seasons (a key criticism of BSG).

This is a tense and at times claustrophobic show, with our protagonists spending most of their time in tunnels inside asteroid colonies or in spacecraft. The only time we get a feeling of air and freedom is when the series cuts away to events on Earth, where UN Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is investigating the events in space from the homeworld and using her canny political skills to work out how both Earth and Mars are being manipulated. This use of physical space cleverly ties into the sociological themes of the show, that the people in the belt are living in uncomfortable and unpleasant conditions for the betterment of people hundreds of millions of miles away who don't care about them whilst living off the benefits of their work.

The main cast consists of several intersecting groups of characters. The largest, and the group we spend the most time, with are crewmembers from the Canterbury who survive the opening episode: Jim Holden (Steven Strait), Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) and Amos Burton (Wes Chatham). This core cast is a little different from the books: Holden is slightly younger, Alex is more of a family man and Amos is both younger and shorter than their book counterparts. However, in each case the changes work well. In particular, Amos in the books is big and beefy and loyal to a fault, but still has a coldly utilitarian attitude to violence which disturbs his shipmates. Despite his shorter stature, Chatham sells the same thousand-yard stare and air of barely-controlled danger simply through attitude and confidence, and inhabits the character completely convincingly (although he also has a moderately distracting resemblance to BSG's Aaron Douglas). Naomi walks pretty much straight off the page. Thomas Jane also does outstanding work as Joe Miller, the hardbitten noir cop who is so much of a cliche that even he and his bosses remark on it. But Jane's nuanced performance brings out Miller's humanity and his search for something good to live for in the world. The Walking Dead and The Wire's Chad Coleman also has a small but pivotal role as Fred Johnson, a different kind of role for the actor (an administrator and general) which he pulls off skillfully.

The casting is excellent throughout, even where they differ from the character descriptions in the books, and clearly the show has put a lot of thought into bringing out the belter patois as well as mentioning how those born in low gravity tend to be thinner and taller than those born on Earth. The show also makes concessions to the low-gravity environments of places like Ceres and Eros, by showing birds half-floating through the air, only having to flap their wings every now and then, or by having liquids move slowly through the air when being poured. However, the people themselves tend to move around pretty normally, as if they're in 1G. This is a decent compromise between showing the scientific reality of low-gravity environments without them having to spend 90% of the show pretending to walk through syrup. There is also no artificial gravity, so unless they're under thrust the ships also feature zero-gravity environments which are pulled off quite impressively.

The production values are stunning, with large, expansive and expensive-looking sets and some quite incredible CGI in places. The spacecraft are chunky and primitive compared to those in other space operas, with no FTL travel meaning that the action is restricted to the Solar system and it takes days or weeks to get anywhere even with their highly fuel-efficient Epstein drives. The Expanse has had a lot of money spent on it (it's apparently SyFy's most expensive-ever production) and most of it is firmly on screen. There is also a wonderful theme tune and fantastic opening credits, although these are only seen in full in the first and last episodes (the remainder just having a title card).

With great production values, amazing CGI, fantastic actors and some brilliantly-handled scenes, the show should be slam dunk. Unfortunately it's held back by several flaws. The first of these is pacing. The first season is based on Leviathan Wakes, the first novel of a planned nine in the novel series. However, it doesn't cover all of the novel and finishes about two-thirds of the way through the book. This has several issues. We can assume that they are not planning 13-18 seasons, so the structural implications of cutting off the plot are not necessarily an issue (especially as the next two books are quite focused around Holden and company, the TV series can use the Earthbound plot to open things up and use the remains of the much more plot-dense Leviathan Wakes to open the second season). However, what is an issue is the effect is has on pacing. The show moves fairly slowly for the first six or seven episodes, then the last three are fairly jam-packed with incident. Early reviews show that many viewers, in particular those unfamiliar with the novels, have found these early episodes a bit of a slog and turned off in droves; the show lost more than half of its audience over its run. Fortunately, SyFy have taken on board the very healthy online viewing figures and renewed the show for a second season regardless. But it's certainly a concern that the first episodes are a little too obsessed with worldbuilding and scene-setting over action. Another issue, although understandable from a budget standpoint, is that the show a little too obviously shares its asteroid sets between Ceres and Eros, which could also be confusing to some viewers.

What we get instead is a lot of fine characterisation, which space operas usually don't prioritise. But here we get quite a lot of building up of the characters, their motivations and what makes them tick. For those who enjoy character-building, the slower-paced opening episodes are excellent. For those who prefer to have the characterisation established through the plot and action, The Expanse's writing and structural choices may be initially challenging.

The first season of The Expanse (****) is the finest season of space opera to air since the second season of Battlestar Galactica, a full decade ago. It's well-written and finely-acted with excellent production values, effects and its own, unique atmosphere. The pacing is a little off and the first season doesn't so much climax as end (well short of the book's own much bigger and more climactic finale), but overall this is both an enjoyable season of SF and also a rare example of the TV show being better than the book. The season will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the United States on 5 April.

Note for would-be UK viewers: somewhat inexplicably, SyFy has failed to secure a UK distributor for The Expanse, either in terms of showing it or releasing it on DVD or Blu-Ray. This is baffling, given how other, considerably cheaper and less-accomplished American TV shows are routinely picked up in the UK. As a result, the only option for watching the show in the UK right now is to order the media release from the United States.

No, a GAME OF THRONES prequel movie isn't in development

A couple of clickbait sites (that I won't dignify with a link) have been posting claims that HBO is working on a Game of Thrones prequel movie based around Robert's Rebellion, the civil war that took place twenty years before the events of the TV series and saw Robert Baratheon take the Iron Throne.

This is, of course, untrue. George R.R. Martin has gone on record several times saying that HBO only has the rights to A Song of Ice and Fire itself. It does not have the rights to make any prequel series or films without Martin's involvement. Martin has also indicated he is not inclined to pursue any project related to the Rebellion, stating that by the end of the books all of the important beats of that war will be known and an actual account of it would just be joining in the dots. HBO themselves appear to have agreed, and Season 5 and (reportedly) Season 6 will be featuring flashbacks and reports of the events of that civil war that would also seem to make an actual account of it redundant.

This isn't to say that Martin would not be amenable to discussions about other ASoIaF stories being turned into films and TV shows, such as the Dunk and Egg prequel novellas (recently collected in A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms) or The Princess and the Queen or The Rogue Prince, just that HBO would have to acquire the rights from him first and that, whilse discussions have taken place, no firm plans are in place at the moment.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The most metal deaths in Middle-earth

J.R.R. Tolkien is seen these days as a bit old-fashioned, maybe even a bit twee. But mainly by people who haven't read him. Those who have, particularly The Silmarillion, know that the Tolks was happy to murder his way through his cast of characters with a wild abandon that even George R.R. Martin might think is a bit much.

Fingolfin battles Morgoth shortly after the Battle of Sudden Flame, in the First Age of Middle-earth.

Some of those deaths were tragic. Some were epic. Some were heroic. But the question everyone needs answered is: which were the most metal deaths. The Toast has you covered here.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Fargo: Season 2

1979. There is a war brewing between a drugs gang based in Kansas City and an operation run by the Gerhardt family in Fargo, North Dakota. The conflict unexpectedly spirals out of control after an innocent couple, Peggy Blumquist and her butcher husband Ed, accidentally kill one of the Gerhardt sons. The conflict escalates, with Minnesota State Trooper Lou Solverson left to investigate and find those responsible.

When FX announced they were making a TV series based on the 1996 movie Fargo by the Coen Brothers, a lot of people including the Coen Brothers thought they were insane. Instead, the first season of Fargo turned out to be, quite possibly, the greatest individual season of television since (at least) the fourth season of The Wire aired a decade ago. The bar was raised impossibly high for a second season.

Fortunately, writer/producer Noah Hawley had a trick up his sleeve. Fargo is, at least nominally, an anthology series where each season has its own cast and self-contained story. The seasons all take place in the same fictional universe (as each other and the film) so references and very occasional characters cross over, but overall each season stands alone as its own story. And throughout the first season, the character of Lou Solverson (Keith Carradine) makes oblique references to something horrendous that happened in Sioux Falls in 1979. Season 2 tells us that story.

That tale is nothing less than a war story, a clash for territory and control between the Kansas City Mob and the Gerhardt family based in Fargo, North Dakota. The situation escalates into all-out war when one of the sons of the Gerhardt family is inadvertently killed by Peggy and Ed Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons), a quiet, ordinary couple trying to live the American Dream in their own way. Ed is soon mistaken as a ruthless, murderous contract killer ("The Butcher") by both the Gerhardts and the Kansas City boys, with local law enforcement officers Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) and Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) having to try to protect the hapless couple.

That's not really the whole story. There's also Lou's home issues, with his wife Betsy (Cristin Milioti) suffering from cancer. There's the murderous gun-for-hire Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) who works for the Kansas City crew but finds his career prospects hampered by racial prejudice. And there's a very enigmatic Native American Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon) who works for the Gerhardt family as an enforcer...up to a point. And that's not even mentioning the misadventures of local drunk lawyer Karl Weathers (Nick Offerman) and the fact that Ronald Reagan (Bruce Campbell) is hitting the campaign trail in the state int he midst of the chaos.

The second season of Fargo is busier than the first and, it has to be said, is not quite as good. However, it's still probably the single finest season of television you'll see this year. The second season is a little more diffuse, less focused and less finely-characterised than the first season. We don't have quite as finely-tuned a clash of personalities as the three-way battle of wits between Lorne Malvo, Lester Nygaard and Molly Solverson in the first season. But it's damn close. The second season feels a bit more inclined to pursue random tangents for the sake of character or even just a laugh (whoever cast Bruce Campbell as Ronald Reagan needs to be given a raise, immediately) before pulling itself together in the last few episodes to deliver the promised carnage at Sioux Falls and it delivers that with aplomb.

Plaudits can be poured onto the series freely. Kirsten Dunst and Ted Danson are two very familiar faces from American film and television, but here give career-best performances. Dunst plays Peggy as a somewhat self-obsessed (if not blinkered) housewife in a marriage to someone who doesn't entirely suit her, but then is unexpectedly able to capitalise on the carnage to help her "self-actualise" (to borrow her self-help guru's terminology), although fortunately not in as quite an evil direction as Lester in the first season. It's a tricky character to nail but Dunst does so with impressive skill. Danson also does excellent work as the sheriff trying to keep a lid on the chaos that is threatening to blow up in his town. In fact, all of the actors put in incredibly strong turns with Patrick Wilson being totally convincing as the younger version of Keith Carradine's character from the first season and Nick Offerman delivering a dramatic, powerful performance that shows his much greater range than just playing comedy, as he has done recently (although his drunk lawyer character does provide a few laughs as well).

Complaints? Well, the pacing is a bit odd. The central story is surprisingly thin, and unlike the first season this one feels like it could have had a few episodes shaved off it...until you get to the final three or four episodes which come after that peak and realise the genius of the writers in how they've structured the season. So that complaint is pretty quickly dispensed with. As mentioned above the show is a bit more willing to explore tangential subplots this year, but most of those subplots are excellent in their own right, so that's not really an issue either. Something that has sharply divided viewers is the emergence of science fictional elements in the story, which twice (in the first and ninth episodes) play a decisive role in events. My guess is that isn't really an SF element at all and is a result of the writers planting story seeds for future seasons, but in the context of this year by itself feels very random, although it does play into the 1970s theme quite well.

But it's still a gripping, intelligent and beautifully-written season (****½) of television, with an even larger hint of the weird about it. The series will be released on 23 February on DVD in the United States and on 25 April (because it takes two months to cross the Atlantic in 2016, clearly) in the UK. The show will be released on Blu-Ray as well but these editions have not yet been listed.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Kickstarter for an Ursula K. Le Guin Documentary

Producer and film-maker Arwen Curry is in the middle of production on a documentary about revolutionary SFF writer Ursula K. Le Guin. The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin will tell the story of the author and her fiction, including its impact on later writers. Although production is advanced, she has decided to use Kickstarter to secure additional funding to bring the project to completion.

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the most important living authors of speculative fiction. She is best-known for the Earthsea YA fantasy series, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), and a sequence of important, well-written and fiercely intelligent science fiction novels including The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Lathe of Heaven (1971) and The Dispossessed (1974). Le Guin is famous for her progressive politics (A Wizard of Earthsea has an almost all-black cast of characters, sparking her fury when the TV mini-series adaptation cast everyone as white) and her exploration of the social impact of science fiction ideas, such as interstellar travel and communications, and how sexuality works in a society where gender is biologically fluid.

Le Guin's impact and influence is notable, on SFF authors as well as on more literary authors such as Michael Chabon and Margaret Atwood, whose previous reluctance to be counted as an SF author seems to have been partially eroded through conversations with Le Guin about the nature of genre. Le Guin is certainly one of the most important SF authors of all time, so a documentary about her life seems very fitting.

Just a couple of days into the campaign, it has already raised $15,000 of its $80,000 goal. You can find the campaign here.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void

Years ago, the Protoss homeworld of Aiur was lost to the Zerg. Many of the Protoss survived by escaping into space and seeking refuge on Shakuras, refuge world of the Dark Templar, before fighting in the Brood War. However, the mighty warrior Artanis dreams of retaking his home and to this end has gathered the Golden Armada, the greatest fleet in Protoss history, to launch the invasion of Aiur. But the invasion is a trap baited by the Fallen One, Amon of the Xel'Naga, and only with the wisdom and assistance of Zeratul can Artanis and his forces escape, regroup and strike back.

Legacy of the Void is the third and final part of the StarCraft II saga, begun in Wings of Liberty (2010) and continued in Heart of the Swarm (2013). It's taken a very, very long time to get here. The original StarCraft was released in 1998, its expansion Brood War a year later and StarCraft II was formally announced in the spring of 2007. The fact it's taken almost nine years since that announcement to get the game completely out is faintly ridiculous, and has certainly sapped some of the excitement and momentum from the franchise.

But the game is out now and has several roles to fill: it needs to be a satisfying single-player game with a strong storyline that ties up plot elements that begun eighteen years ago in the original StarCraft. It needs to have exciting multiplayer that builds on the successful design established in the previous two games. And it needs to see out the franchise - as any StarCraft III is likely many, many years away - in style.

Its success in these fields is highly debatable. On the story front, Legacy of the Void is easily the weakest link in the StarCraft II saga. Its characters are pompous and unrelatable, the dialogue is overwritten, cliched and awful and none of the characters with the sole exception of Alarak (helped by superb voice acting from John de Lancie) have much of a discernible personality. It doesn't help that the game is very unfocused. The previous titles benefited from having a strong, personal through-line that helped anchor the massive battles and carnage around them: Wings of Liberty was focused on Jim Raynor's mission to redeem Kerrigan; Heart of the Swam focused on Kerrigan seeking out vengeance on Arcturus Mengsk. Legacy of the Void doesn't have that. Instead, the story is that the Protoss have to defeat Amon and don't know how to do that, so flit around from crisis to crisis until, inevitably, a plot twist reveals the Fallen One's hidden weakness, at which point you have to try to kill him in the face. It doesn't help that Amon is cut from the exact same cloth as Sargeras and the Burning Legion of WarCraft lore, an unknowable cosmic mega-foe who wants to kill everyone because why not? As an antagonist, he lacks the bite or personal edge that Arcturus Mengsk or Kerrigan herself had in previous games. It also doesn't help that the game is focused on the Protoss, but then in the three-part finale to the game we suddenly get a major return from characters like Kerrigan and Raynor, during which the Protoss are shunted off to the side and don't get much resolution. It's an awkward structural issue that Blizzard don't really know how to handle, although it does allow them to bookend the StarCraft II story by ending where it began.

So much for the story, what about the individual missions? Well, the gameplay is as strong as ever. The Protoss may be my favourite StarCraft race and they also seem to have been least modified from the original games, so in terms of actually playing the game I felt more at home with them than I had with the other two species. However, they may also be the most overpowered race in the game (this will be fiercely debated by other StarCraft players, but I stand by it) with their formerly formidable Archon/Carrier combo now being joined by units such as Void Rays, Stalkers and Immortals to make them almost completely unstoppable once you've moved a modest distance down the tech tree. The Protoss are immense fun to play and their missions are very well-designed with some genuinely thought-provoking strategic challenges. However, RTS veterans won't find much to slow them down here. With the exception of maybe the final epilogue mission and the final main campaign mission, nothing here is remotely on the order of difficulty of the original StarCraft missions, let alone the nightmare of Brood War's last few missions. But certainly in the moment the game is fun to play, either in single-player or the typically frenetic multiplayer modes.

The gameplay is also limited by the curious decision to control your access to units. So you can build Void Rays or Arbiters, but not both, which feels arbitrary. You also can't field-test the different variants on the battlefield like you could with Heart of the Swarm, which feels like a regressive step.

As an overall experience, Legacy of the Void (***½) certainly has impressive production values. It's polished to a fine sheen, there are monumental numbers of in-engine cut scenes (although only a tiny handful of the pre-rendered, beyond-movie-quality CG cinematics that Blizzard are best known for) and the game clocks in at around 15 hours in length, which isn't bad for a stand-alone expansion. The gameplay is solid, a very nice iteration over the standard StarCraft experience, but the storyline, writing and characterisation are all seriously subpar. You have fun playing the missions, but the game provides insufficient context or motivation to make you care a huge amount. The result is a game that is intermittently brilliant, rather less intermittently tedious and overall vaguely disappointing compared to what came before it. It's certainly a worthwhile purchase for fans of the franchise, but newcomers will be lost and it's a game that has fallen far short of its potential. The game is available now on PC (UK, USA).

Friday, 29 January 2016

R. Scott Bakker on maps and potential delays

R. Scott Bakker has posted the map that will accompany The Great Ordeal, the forthcoming third and penultimate volume of his Aspect-Emperor trilogy. Unfortunately, it comes with the caveat that the third book in the series may be facing a delay.

As is well-known, Bakker completed the then-final volume in the Aspect Emperor series well over a year ago, but there were substantial delays at his publisher Overlook. It took a concerted letter and email campaign by fans to get Overlook to finally schedule the novel. Finding the book too large, they decided to split it in two, with The Great Ordeal scheduled for July 2016 and The Unholy Consult for early 2017.

However, the editor at Overlook who was handling the novel has since departed and Overlook have not assigned Scott a new one. With publication only five months away and the full editorial cycle not yet begun, the novel hitting that date is starting to look doubtful.

Overlook's lacklustre handling of what is apparently one of their biggest-selling novel series is rather strange, and boosts the feeling that this series should really have moved to Orbit USA, who have much greater clout and the ability to get the books on shelves and promote them better. Overlook have done a splendid job getting Scott to this point but, as I've said before, it's clear they can't take him to the next level. Hopefully they can get moving and we'll see The Great Ordeal in its original publication slot or as soon as possible afterwards.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

The world of Kharak, dominated by the vast Great Banded Desert, is dying. The Kushan people, crowded into the cities of the northern plateaus, are trying survive as well as their technology allows. But hope is kindled when a malfunctioning satellite discovers an unknown object in the deep desert. The initial scans of this "primary anomaly" hint that it may hold the key to the future of the Kushan people...and their distant past.

The Northern Coalition assembles a fleet of vehicles led by the carrier Kapisi and dispatches it into the desert. It must cross thousands of miles of unrelentingly harsh, arid territory to reach the primary anomaly...and along the way they will be hounded by religious fanatics, followers of the god Sajuuk, determined that the invaders will not reach their objective.

Deserts of Kharak - known during its lengthy development period as Shipbreakers - is a real-time strategy game that serves as a prequel to Homeworld (1999) and its sequels. Homeworld was set in space and was the first strategy game to really embrace three-dimensional movement, strategy and thinking. Your fleets could attack - or be attacked - from any angle and were persistent between missions: you units which survived one mission were what you had at the start of the next. This was quite advanced in 1999, when most strategy games were still firmly locked in the much more familiar mould of StarCraft, Command & Conquer and Total Annihilation. Homeworld was the first of a series of RTS games (along with the equally brilliant Ground Control and Hostile Waters) which tried to bring the genre kicking and screaming into the 3D world, with mixed success.

After Homeworld 2's release in 2003, the rights to the series became tangled up in legal issues. The original team at Relic which had made the Homeworld games left to start up a new company, Blackbird Interactive, and started a new project, a multiplayer-focused strategy game. When the Homeworld IP was bought by Gearbox and the original games remastered, Gearbox brought Blackbird on board to help and also allowed them to rework their game into an official Homeworld title, bringing things full circle.

Deserts of Kharak itself is both startlingly similar and strikingly different from the existing Homeworld games. As with the space games, you have a large mobile headquarters from which you build your units, research new technology and command the action. As the campaign proceeds, your command carrier is upgraded with additional shields, armour and weapons and becomes a formidable warship in its own right. You also get increasingly powerful units, starting with small, rapid dune buggies and escalating up to massive landcruisers armed with long-range cannons. Each mission usually requires you to explore areas, harvest resources, hold territory against enemy forces or reach a particular location by striking through enemy lines. You can dip in and out of a long-range sensor view to better control the action from afar, as well as close up through the wonderfully-designed vehicles and environmental effects. There is also the musical score from series veteran Paul Ruskay, which is amazing, and the atmosphere, which genuinely nails that Homeworld "feel" despite the different setting.

The differences are pretty obvious. Being set on a planet, the vertical axis plays less of a role. There are nods to it, with units on elevated terrain getting attack and defensive bonuses and air units providing late-game, decisive strikes and bombing runs. But this is more of a traditional RTS where you build lots of tanks, repair units and artillery and attack the enemy en masse whilst resources are gathered in the background. It's always made for fun, compelling gameplay and this is still the case here. The map environments are beautiful and the designers go to some lengths to break up the maps which could have been very samey, using different times of day and night, terrain features and enemy compositions to make things varied. Each of the 13 maps is well-designed and fun to explore, linked together by mission briefings, wonderfully-animated cut scenes (the 2D artwork which has been a staple of the series now layered over CG and video footage to create something interesting and original whilst still true to the series aesthetics) and crew log entries.

The pace of the game is also relaxed. When combat takes place it's usually fast, furious and harsh, but there are usually longueurs as you build up your forces and can plan your next move with some confidence.

The game does have its weaknesses. First off, you can't pause the game to move the camera around and plan you next move. This is a key ingredient from the original games and it's irritating to find it missing here. There's also the fact that the Unity-based engine is simply not as good as the actual core Homeworld engine itself (which Blackbird only got access to in the last year or so of development, way too late to switch to it), with units clipping through one another and there being significant scaling issues: your vast, imposing war machines are beautifully-designed and rendered, but feel like radio-controlled vehicles. What Blackbird have done with the engine, making it mimic the original Homeworld games, is nothing short of breathtaking, but it can't disguise the fact that it's less impressive technology. There's also no formation controls, you can't control the facing of your units and the strike force tech from Homeworld 2 is also missing, meaning that your units will scamper all off as fast as they can, breaking formation and letting the fast units engage long before the slow ones are even remotely in range. All of these weaknesses are individually bearable, but the combination of them makes for moments of genuine frustration. This frustration is intensified if you have played the original Ground Control, a seventeen-year-old game which has vastly superior UI, formation and facing controls, unit scaling and camera movement compared to Deserts of Kharak, which is all a bit embarrassing. There's also a fairly thin selection of multiplayer content, and the AI is rarely challenging.

These issues prevent Deserts of Kharak (****) (PC) from being the modern RTS classic that it could have been. As a spin-off from the main Homeworld franchise it is fun, entertaining and enjoyable. It certainly whets the appetite and shows that Blackbird more than have the chops for what should come next: a proper Homeworld 3.

AMERICAN GODS names its lead actor

The Starz TV adaptation of American Gods has found its leading man. British actor Ricky Whittle will play the role of Shadow in Neil Gaiman's story about ancient gods existing in the modern United States.

Whittle rose to prominence on British television, most notably a lengthy stint on Hollyoaks and a turn on reality TV show Strictly Come Dancing as well as roles on Dream Team and Holby City. He then moved to Hollywood and for the past three seasons has played the recurring role of Lincoln on the excellent CW adventure series The 100, as well as appearing on Single Ladies, Housewives and NCIS. He has appeared in two films, Losing Sam and Austenland.

American Gods is based on the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name, although it will also incorporate original storylines and elements from Gaiman's other planned stories in the same universe. The Starz series is expected to shoot this year for a possible 2017 debut.

Monday, 25 January 2016

DOCTOR WHO showrunner quits, gets replaced by worst possible choice

Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat has quit. The next season of the show, the tenth since its return in 2005, will be his last. The next season will film this year and be trailed by a Christmas special, with the season itself expected to debut very early in 2017.

Moffat will be replaced by Chis Chibnall, who will take over for production of the eleventh season in 2018. This news has been less well-received, although the BBC has de facto confirmed that the show will be continuing for at least two further seasons and likely more. In fact, it sounds like the move to Spring 2017 has come from a combined urge to miss major sporting events in 2016, give Moffat more time to prepare scripts for the next season, give Peter Capaldi a longer break between seasons (Capaldi has noted that he loves playing the Doctor, but had indicated that he might only stay for three seasons due to time requirements and his desire to play other roles) and also to see if a move to the spring might help the first-run viewing figures. Although combined viewing figures (taking into account repeats and time-shifting) have showed little fluctuation from the show's ratings heyday under Russell T. Davies, the first-run viewing figures have almost halved since it moved later in the year. However, some fans and commentators have blamed the lack of a regular, predictable timeslot (the show's airing time changes almost weekly) for this, as well as a more global move towards streaming and viewing after the fact. Moffat also oversaw the show's global viewing figures passing 70 million, an absolutely enormous number. With the overwhelming majority of that number watching from outside the UK, through deals made with BBC Enterprises, that actually makes the BBC a significant amount of money and makes the show's cancellation doubtful.

The decision to replace Moffat with Chibnall is raising the ire of some fans, who were confidently expecting Toby Whithouse or Mark Gatiss to take over. Whithouse has an excellent showrunning pedigree with Almost Human, No Angels and The Game, has writing scripts for Doctor Who and was generally regarded as the favourite to take over. Gatiss has exceptional experience working on Who, having regularly contributed scripts since its return in 2005 as well as writing novels and actually playing the Doctor in spoof charity sketches. Some of his scripts have been less accomplished than others, but his drama An Adventure in Space and Time, about the creation of the show, was widely regarded as the highlight of the 50th Anniversary celebrations two years ago.

Chibnall, on the other hand, has written scripts for the show ranging from terrible to barely adequate and lives in infamy as the writer of Cyberwoman, a script for Torchwood thay may be the worst thing ever made in relation to the Who franchise (certainly in the top five). He also worked on the terrible Camelot. Chibnall had a reputation rehabilitation by producing and writing the brilliant first season of murder mystery series Broadchurch (starring former Who star David Tennant), but the second season was substantially weaker and patchier, with occasional flashes of brilliance.

If the Chibnall who gave us Broadchurch Season 1 shows up, then Doctor Who could be in reasonable hands going forwards. If not, things may start to get a bit rougher going forwards.

Moffat is expected to continue in his role as showrunner, writer and producer on Sherlock alongside Mark Gatiss. It is possible that this move may even allow more episodes than normal to be produced: whilst Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman's rise to international superstars has limited the time available to work on the series, Moffat's own commitments to Who (taking up to nine months of every year) have also prevented more episodes from being made. With additional time now available, we may hopefully see an upturn in production.