Saturday, 16 January 2077

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STICKIED POST

After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.


Wednesday, 25 April 2018

SENSE8 finale gets airdate

The series finale of Sense8 has been given an airdate. The movie-length grand finale to the story will air on Netflix on 8 June.


Netflix cancelled Sense8 last year after, curiously, airing the second season with almost no marketing, meaning that even big fans of the show were unaware it had returned. Netflix had chosen instead to keep marketing 13 Reasons Why, despite that show already being a big hit, and the need to get eyes on Sense8 being much greater because of its larger budget (Sense8's second season cost an eyewatering $9 million per episode). This was a bit of an own goal, to put it mildly, and after a fan campaign which involved mass rewatches of the first two seasons, Netflix agreed to fund a two-hour finale. This will wrap up the second season's cliffhanger ending and will provide a conclusion to the series overall, despite writers J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowskis previously saying that the show was meant to run for an additional three seasons.

Some fans are hoping that the finale is successful enough to warrant a third season being commissioned, although that seems unlikely.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Gratuitous Lists: Seven Great Albums

There's a thing going round asking people to list their seven favourite/most important albums of all time (to them). So here's mine:


R.E.M.
Automatic for the People
1992

Tracklisting: Drive • Try Not to Breathe • The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite • Everybody Hurts • New Orleans Instrumental No. 1 • Sweetness Follows • Monty Got a Raw Deal • Ignoreland • Star Me Kitten • Man on the Moon • Nightswimming • Find the River

Although they'd been knocking around since 1981, ceaselessly touring and releasing multiple critically-acclaimed albums, it was REM's seventh LP, Out of Time, that finally catapulted them to superstardom. Fronted by the monster hits "Losing My Religion" and "Shiny Happy People", the record propelled the band to ubiquitous status, to both the band's pleasure but discomfort. Although grateful for the financial security afforded by their success, the band were wary of becoming "radio-friendly unit-shifters" and low-key rebelled. They refused to tour Out of Time and went straight back into the studio to rush-record a follow up.


Drummer Bill Berry insisted that the record had to rock hard and the rest of the band initially agreed, but both music and lyrics instead went very stripped-back, bare and acoustic. After the expansive Out of Time, Automatic for the People (named after the motto of a local restaurant, Weaver D's Delicious Fine Foods: "It's automatic, people!") was introverted, moody and - mostly - quiet. The band were confident that they'd made an album that would not repeat the monster success of its forebear, especially in a music industry now dominated by grunge (Michael Stipe gladly handing over the "spokesman of a generation" mantle to his friend Kurt Cobain).

Instead, the record utterly eclipsed it (to the tune of just under 20 million copies sold by itself). "Everybody Hurts" became the melancholic anthem of the year and the album generated a further five singles, although frankly every song on the album could be a single bar the instrumental. It's kind of cool now to disdain Automatic a little and instead opt for Murmur, Document or New Adventures in Hi-Fi as REM's top album, but that ignores the album's irrepressible atmosphere which mixes hope and melancholy, love and hate, and politics and emotion.

MORE AFTER THE BREAK

Monday, 23 April 2018

Cowboy Bebop

2071. A hyperspace gateway accident has made Earth almost uninhabitable, scattering humanity across the Solar system, with huge centres of population to be found on Mars and Ganymede, whilst Venus is being terraformed. Ex-crime syndicate member Spike Spiegel and ex-cop Jet Black are "cowboys", bounty-hunters working from the Bebop, a spacecraft with aquatic capabilities. They're happy working alone, but soon find themselves reluctantly acquiring new recruits: a strangely intelligent dog called Ein, an amnesiac con artist named Faye Valentine and a brilliant young hacker, Ed. Together they get into strange adventures from one end of the Solar system to the other as they try to get a big score...and forget their pasts.


Cowboy Bebop originally aired in Japan in 1998 and received significant critical acclaim, which has only increased in the last two decades. It's an anime (animated Japanese series) that draws on large numbers of influences, including significant western ones such as film noir, Westerns and jazz. Its acclaim and place in the anime pantheon is down to its accessibility, the relatively straightforward storylines and the very fine characterisation.

At first glance Cowboy Bebop adheres to the "small dysfunctional group of people on a small ship" paradigm previously seen in TV shows like Blake's 7 and Red Dwarf and films like Star Wars, and later employed by the likes of Firefly, The Expanse and Farscape, not to mention novel series like Chris Wooding's Tales of the Ketty Jay. Generally, each episode revolves around Jet and Spike picking up a bounty contract and trying to take the target down, usually through escalating and increasingly riotous complications. Several key episodes eschew this format in favour of exploring our heroes' backstories, with tinted flashbacks revealing how they got from where they were to hiding on a starship at the arse end of space. Cowboy Bebop has been called a coda or epilogue to a story that we never got to see, which is an interesting approach to a narrative but also one that works really well.

The show is rooted in its four characters: Spike is disinterested and apathetic until he is either annoyed or he is drawn back into his criminal past. Jet is more empathetic but, as the Bebop's owner, is often distracted by their always-precarious financial situation. Faye pretends to be too cool to be concerned about anyone else, but as the series continues we learn more about her insecurities and her missing memories. Ed is...thirteen and strange, and "data dog" Ein steals most of the scenes he's in. These initial characterisations are deepened as we explore more about their past episode by episode.

The show is unusual for eschewing anime's love of deep serialisation and increasingly convoluted long-running story arcs and focusing more on adventures of the week, with the occasional "arc episode" with longer-term ramifications. This allows for a lot of tonal variation. Some episodes are very bloody and action-focused, others are very comedic, others are romances or noir mysteries. At least two episodes are outright horror (Alien gets a homage), and the series as a whole can be seen as something of a tragedy, with the ambiguous finale approaching with gruelling inevitability. But there's also lots of good humour, some non sequitur moments (one episode seems to be one of the writers getting his obsession with the VHS/Betamax wars off his chest) and a commitment to character that is highly successful.

The animation is, mostly, excellent. There's some outstanding compositions and imagery throughout the show and the production design of the spaceships and future cities is top notch. More variable is the CGI, which was in its infancy at the time. There's not much of it, but it varies from the outstanding (the CG Mars the Bebop flies over several times is fantastic) to the patchy and risible (a background shot of Jupiter looks like a late-1990s screensaver).

One of Cowboy Bebop's greatest strengths is its music. The title theme and the outro song are both very good, but every episode is packed with songs from multiple genres including blues, jazz, rock, country, heavy metal and, in one Shaft-riffing episode, some R&B. Legendary composer Yoko Kanno is responsible for the show's soundtrack which must have a serious claim on being the best soundtrack for a single season of TV, animated or otherwise, ever made.

On the negative side of things, some episodes are a bit lacking in exposition, but usually if you wait long enough all of the major plot points are explained and the character arcs make sense. More of an issue - for some viewers - will be that the characters are mostly dressed sensibly for the dangers they are facing, but Faye is near-constantly portrayed in revealing outfits. It's odd because the show not only lampshades this a couple of times (showing they're aware of it), but even goes out of its way to present less-prominent female characters in a less exploitative manner. One episode, about a female space trucker with a love of heavy metal music, is particularly welcome for its exploration of a "non-standard" (at least from the perspective of the time it was made) female character. Faye is certainly a very strongly-characterised figure with an interesting backstory, but you have to put up with some silly outfits to get to that part of the story.

Nevertheless, Cowboy Bebop (****½) is a very strong show. It's tight and constrained (consisting of only 24 episodes) with some of the best and most memorable characters you'll ever seen in a TV show. The worldbuilding is excellent (excepting the fact it's unlikely we'll have colonised the entire Solar system in just seventy years), the stories are well-written and the thematic explorations of love, loss, redemption and family are highly successful. It also makes a great gateway show for those unfamiliar with anime's tropes and ideas. It is available now on Blu-Ray (UK, USA) and is available to watch on Netflix in the UK as well.

Sales of the MALAZAN BOOK OF THE FALLEN pass 3 million

According to Steven Erikson's new website, sales of the ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen series have now passed 3 million.


Erikson started publishing the Malazan Book of the Fallen series in 1999 with Gardens of the Moon and completed it in 2011 with the publication of The Crippled God. He has also written six spin-off novellas (The Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach), two prequel novels in the Kharkanas series and is now working on a sequel trilogy, called Witness. His co-creator Ian Cameron Esslemont has also published eight novels in the same world (the six-volume Malazan Empire sequence and the first two books of a series called Path to Ascendancy) and is working on more. These figures apply to the original ten-book series alone.

Sales of the series passed 1 million in 2012, which was quite a long time, but the fact that the series has tripled its sales in just six years is very good going. Erikson's sales are of course better than 99% of authors will ever experience, but he's still a fair way off the likes of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series (sales c. 90 million) or Terry Pratchett's Discworld (sales c. 85 million). Erikson's first novel, Gardens of the Moon, is infamously a novel that many readers find "difficult" to get into, so it's even more impressive that so many readers have stayed the course and gotten into the whole series.

The reasons for the booming sales in the last few years may be down to social media, such as strong recommendations for the series on Goodreads and Reddit, and also the fact that the original series is both long and complete, making it an appealing alternative for epic fantasy fans waiting for the next Song of Ice and Fire novel.

The next release in the Malazan series will be The Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach: Volume II, which collects the fourth through sixth Malazan novellas. It will be published this autumn. Ian Cameron Esslemont's third Path to Ascendancy novel, Kellanved's Reach, is due in 2019. Erikson is now working on The God is Not Willing, the first Witness novel, with no publication date yet set.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Netflix's THE WITCHER confirms number of episodes and shooting location

Netflix have confirmed a number of important details about it's upcoming adaptation of The Witcher, Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski's critically-acclaimed fantasy series and also the inspiration for the greatest video game of this century.

Witcher executive producer Lauren Hissrich with Andrzej Sapkowski, author of the eight Witcher books.

The first season of The Witcher will be eight episodes long. Some fans have complained about this, but it's notable that quite a few Netflix seasons have been criticised for spreading too little story out across thirteen episodes. Eight episodes to start with, with the possibility of more later on, is the model also used by the massively successful Stranger Things, so it's not exactly bad company to be in.

In addition, the series will be shot in Eastern Europe and predominantly Poland, which of course has massively pleased the original Polish fanbase.

More surprisingly, the series will not air until 2020, with Netflix determined to give the production team to "get it right." Lengthy gestation periods for shows these days are not unusual, but with the pilot episode already written and filming anticipated to begin this autumn, it was expected that the show would be ready to air at least in late 2019. However, it sounds like Netflix have cannily decided to position the series between Game of Thrones - which will probably air its last episode in May or June 2019 - and Amazon's Lord of the Rings show, which will likely not air before 2021.

It's also apparently been confirmed that the first season will adapt the first two Witcher books, the short story collections The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. That's an interesting choice, as those two books between them feature thirteen stories between them, which suggests some episodes may adapt more than one story (which is possible, some of the stories are pretty short) or the some stories may be dropped in favour of the more serialised ones that focus on the character development of Geralt, Yennefer and Ciri, arguably the three central characters of the saga. Presumably Season 2 onwards would adapt the five-book novel series starting with Blood of Elves.

Casting has yet to be announced (or even begin), although Black Sails and The 100's Zach McGowan has thrown his hat into the ring for the role of Geralt, and Mark Hamill got involved in a fan's Twitter casting suggestion that he play Vesemir by agreeing (later noting he was not familiar with the franchise, but Netflix should get in touch).

ASH VS. EVIL DEAD cancelled

Starz have cancelled Ash vs. Evil Dead after three seasons, citing low ratings.


The TV series began in 2015 as both a reboot of Sam Raimi's iconic horror-comedy movie trilogy starring Bruce Campbell and a sequel to it, picking up the action twenty-three years later with Campbell's character Ash having to battle the forces of evil. The first season resurrected the horror-comedy stylings of Army of Darkness very satisfyingly, whilst the second season remarkably upped its game and became as much about psychological horror (particularly the exceptional asylum story arc and the scenes directly referencing the original, less-humorous movie) and homage to other horror properties. The second season was outstanding...right up until the last episode when producer Robert Tapert rather abruptly ousted effective showrunner Craig DiGregorio in a behind-the-scenes power struggle and rewrote the finale so it no longer made sense.

I haven't seen Season 3 yet, but the season has picked up a much patchier critical reception so far than the first two seasons did, with accompanying plummeting ratings.

On the one hand, it is regrettable that we won't see Bruce Campbell chainsawing his way through hordes of deadites any more (at least in the short term; don't rule out future movies), but on the other hand it's hard to complain when just three years ago it looked like there'd be no more Evil Dead, ever, and now we have 30 episodes totalling some 15 hours of further hijinks for Bruce Campbell and his chin, at least two-thirds of which were pretty damn good.

I suspect that the low ratings were only partially to blame. The behind the scenes shenanigans were likely not helping the situation either, and Starz misstepped by not teaming with someone like Amazon or Netflix for international distribution. The show's presence in the UK only as a Virgin cable exclusive likely contributed to its poor viewership over here.

You can't keep a good chin down and I wouldn't be surprised to see Ash and the Evil Dead rise again at some point in the future. But for now, the Necronomicon has been closed.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Happy 80th Birthday to Superman

Today - or, more accurately, some time between today and early May - is the 80th birthday of Superman, the Man of Steel. He debuted in Action Comics #1 which hit newsstands in late April or early May 1938* and has regularly appeared in comics, on TV and in movies almost continuously since then.


The character was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, high school friends in Cleveland, Ohio. They had begun developing the character privately in 1933, going through many different iterations (including one with him as a dubious alien with mental powers and another where's he's an ordinary guy with no powers, just an incredible sense of heroism). By early 1938 they'd started working for DC Comics and sold the rights to the character to them in return for being published, a decision they would later bitterly rue, as they and their families would battle for control of the rights for decades.

The character debuted in Action Comics #1 and by mid-1939 had migrated to his own spin-off title, Superman. Both Action Comics and Superman remain ongoing today, with Action Comics #1000 also coming out this month (the publication rate of the comic was changed a few years ago to twice a month, apparently deliberately so the 1,000th issue would be published on the 80th anniversary of the character). Superman was an immediately hugely popular character, with the comics selling hundreds of thousands of copies a month.

Although some elements of the Superman mythos were present from the start - such as Lois Lane and the Clark Kent alter-ego - others took time to come together. In particular, Superman's powers and limitations varied wildly from writer to writer. Editor Mort Weisinger, who was in charge of the character and comics from 1941 to 1970, insisted on the development of a coherent world and backstory for the character. This led in turn to the creation of the shared DC Comics Universe, codified in Superman #76 in 1952 when Superman finally met and teamed up with Batman for the first time. After several other run-ins with fellow DC heroes, Superman led the creation of the Justice League in March 1960, alongside Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter.

In the 1960s DC Comics was blindsided by the abrupt rise to power of Marvel Comics. Under Stan Lee's stewardship, Marvel was seen as more colourful, more exciting, more current and less staid than the DC characters. Most importantly, the Marvel characters were allowed to have private lives, love lives and be flawed characters, unlike the "perfect" DC heroes. Marvel overtook DC in sales late in the decade and DC rarely challenged them for the title again. Superman was seen as old-hat, but the release of the highly successful Superman: The Movie in 1978 saw the character reassessed. New writers and editors came on board and the comic was taken in a more serious direction; this culminated in 1992 in the Death of Superman storyline, with the issue where Superman "dies" selling over 6 million copies, making it the biggest-selling single comic book issue of all time. Naturally, he returned a few months later.

Superman was first depicted in another medium in 1940 in The Adventures of Superman, a radio drama starring Bud Collyer as the Man of Steel. The radio drama ran for eleven years. Collyer also voiced the character of Superman in seventeen short animated cartoons, produced by Paramount Pictures in 1942 and 1943.

Kirk Alyn was the first actor to play Superman in live-action, in a 15-part Columbia film serial produced in 1948. The serial received mixed reviews, mainly due to the inability to show Superman flying, so these sequences were replaced with animation.

George Reeves became the first well-known actor to play Superman, starting in 1951 in the theatrically-released film Superman and the Mole Men, and then for six seasons and 104 episodes of a TV show called The Adventures of Superman (1952-58). This series was much more successful, mainly due to the use of back projection to show Superman in flight (if somewhat unconvincingly). The show was riding high when star George Reeves tragically died (under bizarre circumstances) in 1959, leading to the cancellation of the series.

In 1978 Warner Brothers released Superman (sometimes called Superman: The Movie), starring Christopher Reeve. The movie was a monster, worldwide hit and spawned three direct sequels: Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983) and the woeful Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), as well as a spin-off, Supergirl (1984). Beginning in the late 1980s a sequence of Superman TV series was put into production, mostly featuring Superman as a young man or at the very start of his days of superheroism: Superboy (1988-92), Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-97) and Smallville (2001-11).

After a surprisingly long hiatus (despite attempts by Kevin Smith and Tim Burton to resurrect the franchise), Superman returned to the movie screen in 2006 with the patchy Superman Returns, followed in 2013 by the terrible Man of Steel, which marked the beginning of the rocky (to put it mildly) DC Cinematic Universe. Superman returned in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017). British actor Henry Cavill portrays Superman in the DC Cinematic Universe, and is notable as the first non-American to play the role.

It's easy to be cynical about Superman. He's an all-American hero who is indestructible, can see through walls and has super hearing, making stories involving him rather bereft of tension (unless the writer resorts to cliches such as robot doubles or kryptonite). Attempts to make the character "dark" or "gritty" misfire for missing the point of the character (most notably in Man of Steel). But at his best, when portrayed by actors like Christopher Reeve and written by good writers with a solid grasp of the mythos, he can be an intriguing and well-developed character. He's also a character who has withstood multiple reinterpretations, from John Cleese's British take on the character (where Superman's spaceship crashes outside Weston-super-Mare rather than Smallville) to Mark Millar's darker Red Son, where Superman was raised in the Soviet Union and becomes a Big Brother-like figure.

The Big S has many more stories left in him and it will be interesting to see where writers take him in the future.



* The confusion is caused by the fact that street dates for "funny books" weren't vigorously enforced in the 1930s. According to The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television, the earliest copies of the comic were sent to distributors starting on 18 April 1938 and some bookstores and convenience stores would have put them on sale immediately, whilst others would have honoured the official release date in early May (confusingly, the actual comic's cover date is June 1938).

The Barbed Coil by J.V. Jones

The formidable warlord Izgard has crowned himself King of Garizon and donned the Barbed Coil, the symbol of Garizonian rule. As Garizon's armies muster and prepare to invade the neighbouring kingdom of Rhaize, Camron of Thorn takes it upon himself to raise a defending army. Figuring strongly in his plans is Lord Ravis, the mercenary who engineered Izgard's rise to power. No-one knows more about Izgard's plans then Ravis. But the recruitment is complicated by the arrival of a mysterious woman called Tess, who claims to be from a distant land called California...


One-volume epic fantasies are a rare beast. The building of an entire world, the development of not just multiple characters but entire cultures and empires is something that can eat up not just hundreds, but thousands of pages. Commercial factors also convince many fantasy authors to flesh out their worlds for sometimes dozens of books at a time, cashing in long after the magic of the setting has gone.

The Barbed Coil is a rarity, then. It builds up a major military conflict between several nation states, develops an original magic system (based on the idea of painting and illumination) and features an expansive cast of both "good" and "bad" guys, all of whom are painted in some depth. It's a story with quiet moments and also packed with fast-moving action and some impressive magic, all delivered with Jones's formidable skills.

The Barbed Coil was released in 1997, between her debut Book of Words trilogy and it's sort-of sequel series, The Sword of Shadows. Book of Words was decent, with a nice improvement between volumes, but a far cry from Sword of Shadows, which is one of the finest epic fantasy series of the last generation (bearing in mind it's still unfinished). The Barbed Coil is a complete standalone, set in its own world unrelated to the two big series, telling one complete story with a beginning, middle and end. And it's a good one.

The novel delves into the character of Tess, someone who finds herself drifting through life on Earth with no purpose until she is borne off to a fantastical world and discovers that she is a smaller part of a much bigger pattern that goes back before her birth. Tess's journey of discovery is traditional, but well-handled. It's a pleasant surprise that Tess is less traumatised or freaked out by her arrival on this world than relieved, as various illnesses she was suffering from on Earth have disappeared in transit (shades of Thomas Covenant here, to a much less wrought degree). Our two male protagonists, Ravis and Camron, are also well-drawn characters, neither traditional heroes but who are drawn into having to choose whether to stand against Izgard, join him or flee. We also spend significant time with Izgard, his young bride Angeline and his scribe Ederius, who form an exceptionally well-written, monstrously dysfunctional triumvirate.

One of Jones's skills is combining the best elements of high fantasy - good fellowship, a sense of humour and a genuine ability for heroism - with the darkest - war, savagery and betrayal. The Barbed Coil bears comparisons with K.J. Parker, particularly the exacting detail given to the painting and illuminating side of things and the disturbingly complex relationship between Ravis and his brother, although it's not quite as unrelentingly grim as Parker's work. Still, that's not bad company to be in.

The Barbed Coil (****) is J.V. Jones doing what she does best, building an interesting world populated by complicated people, fleshed out with an interesting take on magic. The book is available now in the US but, regrettably, is out of print in the UK (even on Kindle). Hopefully it will become available again at some point.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

STAR TREK DISCOVERY USS Enterprise had to be redesigned for legal reasons

After a rocky start, Star Trek: Discovery eventually picked up some reasonable critical responses for its first season. The cast came in for a lot of praise, along with the season-spanning plot complete with some clever (if unfortunately over-foreshadowed) twists. The show had a rougher ride from other Star Trek fans, however, for its apparently random redesign of aspects including the Klingon makeup and the design of the original Constitution-class USS Enterprise, which appears in the closing moments of the first season.


Designer John Eaves has confirmed that the Enterprise had to be partially redesigned for "legal reasons". When CBS split from Paramount in 2005, it created a bit of a quagmire for the Star Trek franchise. CBS inherited the rights to make new TV series (such as Discovery) whilst Paramount inherited the right to make new movies (such as the Abrams movies and the threatened Tarantino movie).

This legal situation proved confusing as to what company owned the rights to which models and designs. As a result, it was decided that the Enterprise needed to look "25% different" to the original version of the ship to ensure there was no legal problem.

Whether this applies to the surreal decision to radically redesign the Klingons remains to be answered, although it should be noted that Discovery did get away with keeping the designs for the Andorians and Vulcans almost identical to their original incarnations, and the Tellarites pretty close.

This analysis from TrekCore shows that the Discovery Enterprise has many callbacks to previous versions of the ship, including the original series version, the version seen in the first six movies and the differing versions seen in the original two pilots.

Filming on Season 2 of Discovery is now underway and the show is expected to return either at the very end of this year or (more likely) in early 2019.