Category Archives: Reviews

Wage Epic War

Apple Inc. is, by some measures, the biggest company in the world. From a near-bankrupt state in 1997, it has turned itself into a globe-spanning colossus, worth somewhere in the region of a trillion dollars. In an age of corporate technology titans, it’s been at or near the head of the pack for years.

And this week Epic Games declared war on it.

Not just on Apple either. On Google too, which along with Facebook and Amazon, forms a modern tetrarchy of technology. It’s a war that’s being fought on legal and public fronts, but exactly how does Epic plan to win? And how did these corporate David and Goliaths come to be at odds?

Founded in 1991, Epic Games started as a video game developer before segueing into developing the tools that others use to make video games, most notably its Unreal Engine game engine. Just as sellers of shovels made more money during Gold Rushes than most miners, so Epic did pretty well out of that move. Then, a few years ago, it released Fortnite.

You’ve probably heard of Fortnite. Even if you don’t play it, you know kids who do, or maybe just kids who watch video streamers who do. A free-to-play game with battle royale, creative, and cooperative elements, its in-game purchases have proved a massive cash cow for Epic, pushing the company’s valuation into the tens of billions.

With all that cash weighing it down, Epic decided to throw its weight around. Casting itself as Robin Hood, it first took on Steam, the dominant storefront for PC games, promising players cheaper games and developers a bigger cut of the revenue. The verdict on this ongoing war remains open, as while the Epic Games Store continues to host exclusive titles and offer free games to tempt new customers, many PC gamers are heavily invested in Steam. However, it’s now clear that this was just a warm up for Epic’s biggest fight.

Apple has faced years of criticism for its “walled garden” approach to releasing software on its iPhone and iPad devices. In short, if you want your software to run on an iDevice, you follow Apple’s rules and give Apple its 30% cut. While the ecosystem for Android devices is more open, the Google Play store, which has adopted similar rules and a similar revenue cut, is the quickest and easiest way to find and install new software. Hence, most users will use it.

This week, Epic said “nuts to that” and implemented a new feature in Fortnite, whereby users could make in-game transactions directly from Epic without giving a cut to Apple or Google. Apple swiftly removed Fortnite from its App Store: if you already have it, you can continue to play, but there’ll be no new users and no updates. Google followed suit not long after, delisting Fortnite from the Google Play store.

For players, the immediate impact is minimal. The difference will only really start to show when Fortnite’s new season begins. Unable to update, iOS and Google Play users will miss out on the new content. But Epic didn’t wait to let them know about it. Not only did they slap Apple and Google with a lawsuit accusing them of monopolistic practices, but they also hosted an in-game video that mocked Apple’s famous “1984” advert, arguing that Apple now held the same position as the corporate behemoths it once opposed.

It’s a fair comment. Apple is “the man” now, just as Google has long since ceased being a scrappy garage startup. Both companies have their share of questionable practices and wield ludicrous economic and social power. Yet the fact that Apple got a video whereas Google didn’t suggests that Epic is relying on public opinion being on its side in this fight. Specifically the public opinion of millions of young Fortnite gamers who might end up missing out due to this corporate spat over revenue sharing.

Apple’s argument is the same two-pronged one that it’s used to fend off anti-competitive arguments in the past. First, it built the App Store, and the host devices, and their operating systems. If Epic uploads a free-to-play game and makes billions through in-app purchases, it’s effectively freeloading if Apple doesn’t get a cut. To which Epic might respond, well, isn’t 30% a bit much? In their turn, Apple can say that the same rules apply to everyone, no matter their size. Epic might then point to Steam, which responded to the competition posed by Epic by implementing lower by altering its terms for revenue sharing. It’s a back-and-forth argument but not Epic’s strongest suit.

Apple’s second argument sees it on shakier ground: it controls its walled garden by checking the content it hosts. This has kept Apple’s App Store largely free from the knockoff apps and rubbish that plagued Android in the past, but it also means that the everything on the App Store has to be Apple-approved. With Apple having recently banned Microsoft and Facebook from hosting their own game-streaming services on iPad and iPhone, this is an opportune moment for Epic to draw attention to how Apple’s corporate culture defines what its users get to experience.

The stakes are high. Apple makes a good chunk of its earnings from hardware sales, and losing Fortnite could see it lose a chunk of those (it’s already facing threats to its Chinese market from Trumpian “diplomacy” to add to its vulnerability). On the other hand, Apple has more cash-in-hand than most countries and can weather the storm, whereas Epic is for the first time putting its cash cow at risk.

On the other hand, if Epic can’t quickly find acceptable terms with Apple and Google, some of its players and streamers might just move on. No game lasts forever as “the big thing,” and my own nieces and nephews are pretty happy with Roblox. Epic is not lacking in competitors who would be more than happy to carve off slices of the Fortnite billions.

Of course, Epic has its own war chest to fight this war, and the lawsuit against Apple and Google may prove to be nothing more than a negotiating tactic. After all, implementing changes to the law does require the presence of a justice system with the will to do so, and the U.S. has its own issues at the moment. Europe would be a more friendly venue in which to argue the merits of the tech giants’ market power, but that’s not where the lawsuit was served (as far as I can tell).

Which is where Epic’s social media strategy comes in. The video mocking Apple was a call to arms for Fortnite players to rally to the game rather than the platform. To think about a world where Apple doesn’t take a 30% cut of Epic’s earnings. Which, given that the game deliberately targets younger players with its marketing and in-game purchases, comes across as just a little bit skeezy.

Ultimately, this is a fight between companies worth billions about who gets how much money. Just because it’s the little guy doesn’t make Epic virtuous. As shown in its conflict with Steam, it’s quite happy to leverage its riches and fight dirty. Similarly, just because Google began in a garage and had a motto of “Don’t be evil” for years doesn’t make it the good guy either. And though I’ve been an Apple user for most of my life, I’m more than happy to see people calling it out when it’s getting things wrong.

This is particularly true in the area of games. It’s something that Apple has never quite got to grips with; a legacy of the Steve Jobs era. Now offering its own subscription-based games service, Apple Arcade, it looked dodgy in throwing roadblocks in front of Microsoft and Facebook. It’s a sore point that Epic has targeted, and it’s one in which Apple could do with reviewing its practices.

I’m just not convinced that there’s much more to this fight than money. There’s a possibility of a more even playing field that delivers benefits for consumers emerging from this spat, but believing in that takes optimism that’s in short supply in 2020. Epic wants more money, and it believes that it can force Apple and Google to the table. Time will tell if it’s calculated correctly, and in the meantime Fortnite users will be the ones to pick up the tab.

Fictionally Humane

The gameplay of Ion Storm’s Deus Ex, released twenty years ago, begins with a choice. Preparing to deal with a group of terrorists, the player chooses one of three extra weapons: a rocket launcher, a sniper rifle, and a mini-crossbow loaded with tranquilliser darts. Unusually for a game of that era, Deus Ex announced from the start that the player’s choices mattered.

On my first full playthrough of the game, I selected the mini-crossbow. I had already been an active player of roleplaying games for years at that point, and I was happy to play into the fiction of the game that those trying to kill you might have valid reasons for doing so. (The sniper rifle is the choice for players unconcerned with lethality, whereas the rocket launcher is best suited to taking out robots and inconveniently locked doors.) This fiction is carried through the game’s plot, in which the initial truths you’re presented with are undermined and other characters react to whether or not the player is happy to shed blood through the course of the game.

Although a seminal game in showing how player choice and morality could be integrated into games, Deus Ex proved a hard act to follow. It received only one sequel, and its 2011 prequel, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, received notable criticism for forcing players into unavoidably lethal boss fights.

One year later, in 2012, a spiritual successor appeared in the form of Arkane’s Dishonored. In this title, the player adopts the role of a vengeance-seeking assassin but the developers leaned into stealth as a mechanic and decided to provide the player with the opportunity to find non-lethal resolutions to all of their goals. Not that these are any less dark in some cases: one “fate worse than death” sees a society hostess and supporter of the corrupt regime delivered to an obsessed stalker as an alternative to being murdered.

The ten year gap between these very similar games presents a degree of progression. Deus Ex asked players to think about how they solve problems and whether casual murder can be justified within the fiction of the game. Dishonored asked that question again, and reinforced it by pointing out that just avoiding murder wasn’t enough to make you a good person. Vengeance takes you to dark places.

At this stage, I ought to point out that both Deus Ex and Dishonored are first-person action games. The player literally sees out of the eyes of the protagonist, so opportunities to distance themselves from the morality of what they’re doing are limited. Action-oriented first-person shooters, such as Halo or Doom, tend to either present inhuman enemies like aliens, demons, or zombies as cannon-fodder or lean towards the multiplayer experience, where the targets are usually other players and an immersive narrative is tossed out in favour of an arena atmosphere: you get shot, you respawn, it doesn’t really matter.

The multiplayer-focused Call of Duty series does engage with this issue but in a fashion that passes over player choice. A mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s single-player narrative sees the player participate in a mass shooting. The mission is flagged for “disturbing content” and players can choose how to interact, but the massacre happens regardless. The narrative requires the deaths to happen, regardless of player choice. They’re a necessity of the narrative, just as the mission itself is seen as a necessity on the part of the player character. No moral choice is made.

Step forward another decade or so and we come to 2020’s The Last of Us Part II.* Once again the protagonist is hell-bent on what initially seems to be justified vengeance. As with Modern Warfare 2, the player has no choice but to deal with the deaths they cause. Worse still (from the perspective of the player character), an in-game switch in narrative perspective does its best to rob them of any belief that their vengeance was just in the first place.

Admittedly, The Last of Us is not the same type of game as Deus Ex and Dishonored. It’s played from a third-person perspective and is less a playground for player creativity than a canvas for the creators to tell a story. It’s also unrelentingly grim in tone, and its apparent theme of just how much choosing to kill costs is one that many players seem to have resented confronting. Even so, it’s another step on the same spectrum: engaging in a work of fiction requires emotional investment, and regret, shame, and horror are all valid emotions to feel around making the choice to kill.

Narrative is one of the strongest tools that artists have to generate feelings in consumers of their art. We have literally centuries of practice when it comes to affecting emotions through stories and of making listeners, readers, and viewers reconsider their preconceptions. Video games, as an interactive art form, are much newer on the block, and it’s hardly surprising that they’re going to crib from what came before. The first few decades of film, after all, copied heavily from theatre until the new art form developed its own language.

Yet the linear narratives that other art forms have developed sit uneasily within video games. The Last of Us hews closely to linearity and while it clearly knows the story it wants to tell, it gives players little real moral choice. Even Dishonored, where the player has the freedom to devise their own solutions to problems, has a linear narrative to follow and an external marker of morality: the more murderous the player is, the more the city they inhabit falls into chaos around them.

Deus Ex had things easy, after a fashion. Technology wasn’t advanced enough to create realistically human opponents, so the moral choices facing a player had a level of abstraction. Ten years later, Dishonored provided a more sophisticated world with more sophisticated inhabitants, but it was still a playground of sorts. That twinge of discomfort when handing over Lady Boyle is one of the strongest memories for players of that game because they were forced to reflect on their choices. In that moment, they were reminded that whatever the narrative might tell them, they might not be wholly the good guy.

A decade further on and The Last of Us Part II is even more sophisticated in its world building and character portrayals, but its directed narrative might be a dead end. By all accounts it is an amazing achievement and perhaps a pinnacle for current-generation technology, but if the player has no agency in the choices the narrative makes, how powerful can the moment be when the game forces them to reflect on the morality of those choices?

This problem of ludonarrative dissonance is hardly new, and people within the games industry have been hacking away at it for years.** In these few examples, I wanted to take a look at how some games flag the choice to be a killer and how they can either lead or force the player to reflect on that. The technological capacity for doing so has definitely advanced over the years, and narrative sophistication has likewise grown, but it doesn’t feel like the two have come together yet. I wonder if and when they will.


*Having never been a person of the PlayStation persuasion, I haven’t played The Last of Us, but I have watched Noah Caldwell Gervais’s deep dive into the two The Last of Us games, which I heartily recommend.

** I specifically limited myself to a few examples to restrict the length of this piece. The Mass Effect series is one that deals heavily with morality within the narrative, though less so with the morality of killing.


Cancer Update

Yes, it’s been a while, I know. For what I hope are understandable reasons, my enthusiasm for writing anything here was at a low ebb for a while. Restoring my mental momentum took a while, and there was a recent recurrence of the whole coughing-up-blood thing that distracted me a bit too.

As a general overview though, I’m doing fine. A round of scans and another bronchoscopy found nothing too egregious (well, nothing that they didn’t already know was there) and I’m back on track, taking my medication and doing my best to dodge Covid by the simple expedients of wearing a mask, limiting the number of people I meet, and washing my hands (not all at the same time, admittedly).

My biggest worry for the moment is becoming a couch potato, which is all too easy when the couch in question is only two feet away from your work chair. Still, I have an isolation break to look forward to shortly, and in the face of Ireland’s fitful summer, it’s not so bad to be indoors. I’ll try to keep up with the posting in future, though no promises. In the meantime, I hope you’re all keeping well and safe.

I’ve Started…

Over the years, I’ve appeared on a few TV quizzes, including victory in an episode of 15-to-1 that is thankfully lost to the mists of time—thankfully because of the terrible goatee I sported back then. One show that I would still love to appear on is the venerable Mastermind, BBC’s extra-dramatic test of general knowledge. Just the contestant seated in a black leather chair under the spotlight, as questions are fired at them.

One nice little touch in Mastermind has become the show’s catchphrase: should the final buzzer interrupt a question, the host will still let the contestant answer, with the phrase “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.” Thus there’s no frustrating sense of being cut off, and the contestant’s fate remains in their hands, not those of the inexorable progress of time.

This twist on the quiz format fits my psychology well. I’m a completist, and I get irritated when I can’t wrap my affairs up neatly. (Not to the point of being obsessive-compulsive, though you will occasionally find me straightening the salt and pepper shakers during dinner.) The main impact of this is that if I start reading, or watching, or participating in something, I don’t like to step away until it’s finished.

Given that TV shows and book series can turn bad during their runs, this isn’t the happiest of traits to have. Spending my time and money on entertainment that makes me feel resentful instead of happy isn’t logical behaviour, but the fallacy of sunk costs has a powerful grip. If I give up, aren’t I just admitting that I’ve wasted the effort and attention I’ve already committed? Having come so far, I may as well see things through, right?

Like most personal flaws, once you’re aware of it, you can take steps to rectify it. I’ve gotten better over the years at walking away from activities that I’m not enjoying any more. Not that I’m perfect though. If I’m quitting a TV show, I’ll still watch to the end of the current series. I might abandon a book series if I’m not enjoying it (Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time was the first I did this with), but I’ll still finish an individual book, no matter how much the experience drags.

My recent diagnosis was a reminder that I need to get better at this. Though the initial impact has faded away, replaced by a return to something resembling normality, the reminder that the time we have available to us is finite still lingers. Wasting time on activities that I’m only persisting with out of a misplaced need to have a tidy ending isn’t a worse idea than it was a few months ago, it’s just that I’m more aware of how bad an idea it is.

This shouldn’t require some grand audit of how I spend my time, either. Just a metaphorical tap on my shoulder any time that I find myself bored or annoyed at a time when I ought to be engaged with whatever I’m doing. Do I really need or want to be doing this? And if not, what could I be doing instead? (This includes nothing—allowing myself time to recharge and decompress is better than spending my time busy when I’m achieving nothing more than winding myself up.)

So, unlike that metaphorical contestant on Mastermind, I don’t always have to finish. I can just walk away if I want to. Though in one particular instance, I might decide to finish properly. You see, the main reason I’ve never been on Mastermind is that my brother works for the BBC—an organisation that’s a bit touchy about potential impropriety. But it seems that an external company has now taken over the show, so that bar to my participation is no longer an issue. Next time they’re looking for contestants, I might just see if I’m a good fit for that black leather chair.


Cancer Update

Missed a week, didn’t I? That was careless of me. Still, it hasn’t been a fortnight filled with incident, so you’re not missing too much. I’m just about finished my fourth week on (and hence first pack of) Alecensa, and the major side effect has been a reduction in my average heart rate of around 10bpm. You’ve probably heard enough about my digestive issues already, so on that side let’s just say that everything is under control with only minimal interference on my part.

I’ve also been putting on a bit of weight, though whether that’s down to my lowered metabolism or the fact that I’m back at a workplace which is keen to provide as many meals and snacks as possible is hard to say. Maybe both. In any case, a visit to the doctor in midweek suggests that the cancer has paused its advance, though more detailed results won’t be forthcoming until early April. Until then, let’s hope for smooth sailing (and an absence of coughing).

New Year, New Movies

As promised, something a little lighter. The turn of the year brings with it Oscar season and a swathe of awards-bait movies. Somewhat unusually, this year I’ve managed to see a few of them. This has proved to be good timing. Movies gunning for golden statuettes can tend to be desperately self indulgent, but I actually enjoyed most of the movies that I watched over the Christmas period.

Below are brief reviews of four of those movies (one of them is not an awards-bait movie, but I did see it over the holidays). I also saw The Irishman, Scorsese’s mob epic, on Netflix, which was probably the best way to watch it, as it’s an interminably long retread of ground that Scorsese has already crossed and re-crossed, mostly in the company of the same actors. I’m not a big Scorsese fan but when all a movie has going for it is familiarity and technical achievement, it’s going to be a lesser work.

For upcoming movies, I still want to catch Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and I’m looking forward to Armando Ianucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. However, while I wait for those, on with the reviews, in more or less chronological order:


Knives Out, Rian Johnson

Having become the focus of Internet fan ire a year earlier for his work on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson’s return with a wonderful modern version of the classic Agatha Christie detective story is a warming success. Garnished with a truly wonderful cast, led by Anna de Armas and Daniel Craig, it does what Johnson likes doing best: takes apart a well-known genre, figures out what makes it tick, then puts it back together in a form just skewed enough to require the audience to pay close attention.

Paying attention pays off in this case, as Knives Out plays fair throughout, providing all the information that the audience needs to figure out what’s going on. Casually mentioned facts reappear later in the story, and no one is entirely to be trusted. Even better, the film lays out early on exactly what happened, turning instead into an exploration of how and why it happened. It’s a subtle distinction, but it brings the characters and their motivations to the fore, much to the evident joy of the cast.

Often when the people involved in a movie have clearly had a good time making it, the movie itself is a bit of a mess. That’s not the case here. Johnson’s script is tight and purposeful, and his cast are clearly having a ball playing a bevy of horrible, entitled people. Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, and Jamie Lee Curtis are all worthy of note, but Craig’s louche detective Benoit Blanc is a constant joy. All the happier news then that Johnson is planning further movies starring him. Bring them on.


Star Wars: Rise of the Skywalker, J.J. Abrams

It’s been a tough few years for Star Wars fans at the movies. For all the money they’ve made, the Star Wars films have stuttered for Disney, with production on movies outside the main story having been halted. Which leaves only the final movie in the trilogy of trilogies for now. Following on from The Force Awakens, which was predictable but buoyed up by its appealing young cast, and The Last Jedi, which did interesting things with the Star Wars universe but clunked in several areas, we have Rise of the Skywalker, which lands with the dullest, heaviest of thuds.

The problem lies mostly with the writer/director. J.J. Abrams has a talent for tapping into fan nostalgia and grabbing audience interest with mysterious stories, but if Rise of the Skywalker proves anything, it’s that he has no idea how to plot a movie. He got away with it in The Force Awakens, which could devote itself to setting up mysteries for later films and which in any case borrowed its plot from earlier films in the franchise, but here he’s required to provide payoff for at least two and as much as eight earlier films, and he really doesn’t.

What he does instead is deliver a film stuffed from one end to the other with incident, action, and brand new and unexplained twists and turns. In this constantly weaving spaghetti junction of plot lines, the appealing traits of the core cast are lost and no time at all is taken to build suspense or allow the impact of seemingly galaxy-shaking events to sink in. Despite watching Star Wars since I was old enough to follow a story, my sense of wonder only twitched once, a positive reaction far outweighed by my eye rolling at overt fan service and sighing at yet another pointless hint that never gets followed up on. This should have been so much more.


JoJo Rabbit, Taika Waititi

Imagine the trickiest assignment you could give a scriptwriter. A comedy set in the waning days of World War II, told from the perspective of a ten-year-old Nazi fanboy, with Hitler as his imaginary friend? Oh, and it has to deal sincerely with anti-semitism, tragedy, and despair, all without being offensive or trite. That’ll probably be close to as tough as it gets. It’s entirely to Taiki Waititi’s credit that he took on the assignment in the first place and a sign of just how good a writer and director he is that the resulting film is something close to a triumph.

I’ve seen and heard a few reviewers complain that as a satire it’s toothless as a result of its silliness, which somewhat misses the fact that JoJo Rabbit isn’t a satire. It’s a coming-of-age story, told amid the most insane of circumstances, as the titular JoJo is required to confront the Nazi “truths” that have been drummed into him from his earliest days, embodied by Waititi’s Hitler, an imaginary friend who is by turns supportive, manic, and hateful.

The complexities of the supporting characters are deliberately hinted at rather than delved into: JoJo simply isn’t equipped to understand their despair, devotion, and rebellion. The exception is Thomasin McKenzie’s Elsa, a jewish girl he finds hiding in his house. Older and more insightful than JoJo, she has a drive for survival that he doesn’t understand, and it’s through her that he finds a path to growing up and developing empathy. By turns hilarious and deeply heartfelt, JoJo Rabbit was my favourite movie of the winter.


1917, Sam Mendes

Most of the attention paid to Sam Mendes’ World War I epic 1917 prior to its release centred around its unusual editing. The entire two hours is presented as taking place in more or less real time, with a single time jump in the middle. Any edits are carefully concealed, with the result that the camera almost never leaves its protagonists as they struggle through no-man’s land and across the western front during a lull in the fighting.

Does this structural flourish actually serve the movie? Arguably, it increases the sense of immersion, as the audience has little opportunity to breathe or look away across the two hours of the film. By the end of the movie, they’re likely to be just as exhausted as the survivors are. However, film editing is an almost universally recognised language, and at times the refusal of the editor to cut away or switch to a closeup can be jarring and remind the audience of the artifice of what they’re watching.

What’s left then is a solid, well-told story of desperation and heroism amid the horrors of the World War I trenches. Mendes doesn’t shy away from showing how awful the experience was, though the film is rarely gratuitous in its use of corpses and death. The cast, while not as impressive as that of Knives Out, does provide some highlights for viewers, but it’s the core duo of Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay that impress the most. The weight of having an entire film production focused on you for far longer than normal can’t be underestimated, and succeeding as well as it does marks 1917 as an impressive feat.


Cancer Update: Towards the end of my second week on alectinib/Alcensa, things are settling down a bit. The most notable side effect has been a lowering of my heart rate, which may have knock-on effects in time but otherwise isn’t bothering me too much for now. My weight has also gone up a bit, but the cause of that is harder to identify. Constipation and returning to a sedentary job with ample access to snacks could both be contributing. So it’s probably a good thing that I started running again today.

Well, I say running. It was more of a 5k run/walk/stagger. However, the breathing wasn’t a problem. Instead, the out-of-practice legs were. So, as before, good news worth taking and I’ll run with that. Once I recover, that is.

Doing the HOX/POX—Hickman’s X-Men

With a break from the rugby yesterday, I decided it might be a good idea to pay a bit more attention to the world outside of sport. What, exactly, has been going on in the world of politics and culture?

….

Well, that was a mistake, wasn’t it? Let’s retreat into some make-believe instead and take a look at one of the biggest comics stories of the year, Jonathan Hickman’s reboot of Marvel’s X-Men franchise.

(Spoilers below, if you haven’t read it. And you should—it’s good.)

Continue reading Doing the HOX/POX—Hickman’s X-Men

Heavy Sits the Arse Upon the Throne…

We’re only a few hours away from the finale of Game of Thrones. Having long ago outstripped the A Song of Ice and Fire novels it was based on, the series is now delivering an ending that author George R.R. Martin may not match for years. However, season 8 has already met with a mixed reception, so the odds that the last episode will leave viewers happy, or even satisfied, are not as good as they were. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the runners and riders for the Iron Throne and how they’ve been served by the last few episodes.

(Spoilers, obviously.)

Continue reading Heavy Sits the Arse Upon the Throne…

Game of Thrones—The Long Farewell

Quite a few long-running stories that I’ve been following across different media are coming to an end these days. In the cinemas, there’s Avengers Endgame, the climax of a story that started with Iron Man in 2008 (and which I’ve seen—more on that soon). In comics, there’s Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine, which has been running since 2014 and is on its final story arc. And on TV of course, there’s Game of Thrones, now two episodes into its six-episode final season.

Endings are tricky things, of course, all the more so when stories are as sprawling as these three examples are. But these stories have an advantage: a large cohort of dedicated fans, who have invested in and stuck with the story from the early days. Perhaps the key to getting the ending right lies in making sure that these fans feel a sense of payoff for their dedication. And from the two episodes so far, Game of Thrones‘ creators understand this well.

(Spoilers for Game of Thrones below, but also for sundry other endings.)

Continue reading Game of Thrones—The Long Farewell

Game of Thrones—In Praise of the Little People

Game of Thrones returned to our screens last weekend, in an opening episode to the final series that harked back to the very first episode. Once again, the major players were manoeuvring around one another, some of them meeting after years apart and others encountering each other for the first time. The Starks and Lannisters, together with Daenerys Targaryen, face the existential threat of the White Walkers and the Night King, while all around them everyone else just tries to survive.

Except that’s not really true, is it? One of the joys of Game of Thrones, both in televisual and novel form, is that its rich cast of minor characters don’t just exist to survive and support the actions of the major players. They have their own lives, their own lusts and drives, and they’re often just as entertaining as, if not more so than, the tragic Starks or the debauched Lannisters.

(There’ll be some spoilers below, but not too many. This is all about celebrating the characters who have enlivened and enriched the tapestry of Westeros for viewers and readers.)

Continue reading Game of Thrones—In Praise of the Little People

A Tale of Two Captains

The history of the comics industry, with all its twists and turns, contains fewer stories more convoluted than that of Captain Marvel. A plethora of characters have held that title across multiple publishers, and there’s no way to tell the tale in a straightforward fashion. There’s even an extension to the Captain Marvel story that ropes in a British copy called Marvelman, comics’ greatest writer, and a slew of hard-fought court cases.

Given all of this complication, there must be some cosmic synchronicity at work in two versions of this storied character having their movie debut within a month of each other, in the form of Marvel/Disney’s Captain Marvel and DC/Warner’s Shazam! It might be a little spurious to compare the two movies, but it might also be a little fun and tell us something about the seemingly bloated state of the superhero movie genre right now.

Besides, when has being spurious ever stopped this blog before?

Continue reading A Tale of Two Captains

Not Quite Star Trek—Discovery and The Orville

These are, in theory, great times to be a Star Trek fan. Sure, the film series is currently on hiatus, its spangly attempt to reboot continuity having had, at best, mixed results. Even so, television (where Trek first found fame) has not one, but two Trek offerings. One is the official Star Trek: Discovery, which has just kicked off its second season. The other is the ersatz Trek, Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, which is several episodes into its own second season.

Both of these series have struggled against a sense that they’re not really Star Trek. It’s an easy accusation to face in the case of The Orville, which was born out of MacFarlane’s love of all things Trek, but despite its often juvenile humour, it regularly harks back to the era of The Next Generation in its storylines and characters. Discovery‘s task as the latest incarnation of official Trek is, if anything, tougher, because treading on fans’ hallowed ground is a sure route to a firing squad at the first sign of deviation from the holy canon. And the first series of Discovery provided plenty of ammunition for those kinds of fans.

But just what is genuine Star Trek anyway? Can there be any such thing for a franchise that’s spread across six main TV series (not counting the animated series) and more than a dozen movies? How do those former offerings inform the Trek and Trek-like shows we’re getting now? Let’s take a look.

The Original Series: Born out of the remnants of 1950s golden-age science fiction and the optimism of the 1960s, Star Trek set the template in a lot of ways. “Its five-year mission, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations,” is still what people think of when they think of Star Trek. But even Star Trek wasn’t Star Trek at first. The pilot famously had a different captain (Pike) and though the core trio of Kirk, Spock, and Bones was in place when the series began, the rest of the multicultural crew took time to fill in. Even so, the sense of exploration and of encountering the strangeness of outer space was always at the heart of the show.

The Movies (Original Cast): Though the original show died after three seasons and 79 episodes, it never really went away. Fan culture grew up around it, and the massive success of Star Wars in the late 1970s made its rebirth a real possibility. Once again though, Star Trek changed over time. The first movie had a lot of the original series’ wonder but lacked any fun and action. The second movie, the much-loved Wrath of Khan, and especially the fourth, The Voyage Home, redefined the template around the original crew, casting them as wisecracking renegades, with heavily emphasis on fan nostalgia. Sometimes it worked wonderfully, but often it didn’t—the rule of even-numbered movies being good and odd ones bad held for a surprisingly long time.

The Next Generation: Born as the original-cast movies were at their height, The Next Generation (TNG) was an attempt to recreate the original series for, well, a new generation. By any measure, it was a massive success, but once again it took time to become itself. Its multicultural crew now included an alien and an android, as well as more than one woman, but it took a step back from the action of the movies at first. Only with the introduction of the Borg as an adversary with real thematic heft did TNG take flight. Likewise, the intellectual Picard was a contrast to the action-hero Kirk of the movies but not quite so far from the curious, emotional Kirk of the original series, showing just how the sense of what Trek was had divided. Moreover, just as the movies were telling an ongoing story, The Next Generation started to move away from single-episode stories towards longer arcs—a trend that would continue in both Star Trek and television series in the wider world.

Deep Space Nine: If TNG was an attempt to recreate the Original Series, Deep Space Nine (DS9) was an attempt to do something different. Different from Star Trek anyway—its resemblance to the contemporaneous series Babylon 5 was widely noted. In this series, humans were almost in a minority, acting as peacekeepers between multiple alien races. Actively political compared to previous series, it still suffered the Star Trek curse of taking time to become itself. Uncomfortably bumpy at the start of its run, it remains deeply loved by its fans, not least because it leaned into its own strangeness, mysticism, and character relations. An ever-increasing focus on long-running story arcs allowed it to develop real depth and the stories it wove to have massive payoffs across its seven seasons.

Voyager: By the time Voyager showed up, Star Trek was suffering from diminishing returns. TNG had just ended, DS9 was still running, and several more movies were released during its run. Like DS9, Voyager had a fascinating concept: a misfit crew flung across the galaxy trying to make their way home. Unlike DS9, Voyager never quite managed to make the most of that concept; unlike earlier Trek series, it never quite became itself. It had its high points, but the possibilities of a long-form story were largely ignored, and the characters remained mostly bland remixes of what had gone before. Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Janeway was easily a match for any prior lead, but her own crew’s voyage never inspired.

The Movies (Next Generation cast): With the original cast aging out of being action heroes, the obvious step was to replace them with the popular TNG crew. And at this stage in its evolution, Star Trek was nothing if not obvious. The Next Generation crew would get four swings at the ball, but only one of those proved to be a strike. Generations was a clumsy handover from the old to the new, giving Kirk an underwhelming death that spin-off media has done its best to retcon ever since. First Contact brought back the Borg in fine style, as well as plenty of the signature Trek optimism that TNG had done so well, delving into Trek history with a time-jumping plot that raised memories of The Voyage Home. Insurrection was mostly forgettable, though it wasn’t as bad as it is remembered, being mostly an expanded Next Generation episode. It was Nemesis that killed the franchise at the movies, flinging too much CGI at the screen and criminally underusing a young Tom Hardy as it stumbled through an action-oriented plot and chickened out of the one interesting character move it made.

Enterprise: At this point, the travails of Voyager and the movies had clearly spooked Star Trek’s guardians, because Enterprise was a weird mishmash of familiar elements, shoehorned into Trek continuity. With Scott Bakula (best known for the Quantum Leap series) at the helm as Captain Archer, the show centred around a previously unmentioned USS Enterprise, from the early days of Trek’s Federation. This put it in the odd position of being a step back from earlier series, as its crew was more homogenous and its world building was largely restricted to “first encounters” with already established bits of Trek lore. In the latter half of its four-season run, Enterprise did push towards becoming itself, rather than warmed-over Trek bits, but it was too little, too late. Enterprise died in a final episode that just reiterated everyone’s affection for other, better Trek series, and with it ended 18 consecutive years of Trek on TV.

The Movies (Kelvin crew): Once again, Trek was resurrected at the movies. This time, under the stewardship of JJ Abrams, the outcome was a reboot rather than a continuation. A new Kirk, Spock, and Bones inhabiting a glittering universe of action and drama, with wisecracks and high-flying action as standard. There was some of the Trek optimism in the new movies but little exploration, and in recreating the original series there was little room for anything new. The presence of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in the first movie just drove that point home, as did the second movie, Into Darkness, a ham-fisted recreation of The Wrath of Khan. While the third film, Beyond, was altogether more joyful and interesting, it still hewed to the action and explosions formula. The three films made plenty of money at the box office but perhaps not enough, because whether or not they’re going to come back again is up in the air at this point.

So we’ve had many different versions of Trek, born from the original series and spinning its ideals of exploration, optimism, and camaraderie in different ways. TNG succeeded in bringing back those values twenty years after the original, and DS9 successfully transplanted them to a very different setting, but every other Trek has had more limited success. Voyager never quite settled on an identity of its own, and that failure likely pushed a subsequent sense that sticking with already known Trek lore is the best idea. That need for familiarity is poison to a franchise that was once about discovery and the new, and Enterprise suffered from a fatal dose, for all its efforts to find its own identity as other Treks had done before it. Then there’s the movies: the blockbuster need for spectacle and action leaves little room for the wonder of the universe, though the one thing that the movies have consistently succeeded at is evoking the camaraderie between the various crews.

So we now have both Discovery and The Orville now on their second seasons, having spent both of their first seasons finding their feet. First-season Discovery took a lot of chances: shoehorning the story into existing Trek lore, set a few years before the original series, gave it little room to manoeuvre. Its season-long story arc was packed full of deceptions, and its sense of discovery was limited to the story of the war it revolved around. For all that, it was entertaining, with interesting characters trying and occasionally succeeding in building relationships as the plot and character revelations overturned things every other episode.

The Orville was a lot more predictable in its first season, using a Trek-like setting to tell Trek-like stories, leavened with Seth MacFarlane’s frat-boy humour and jokes about alien bodily functions. There was no ongoing story to speak of, but the show did make a gradual effort to deepen its characters as it went. Even so, it rarely hit levels that TNG had managed on its off days, and its sense of being Trek-lite was pretty solidly confirmed.

With the arrival of the second season, not much has changed for The Orville. It’s matured to the point where it’s a fun watch, and the juvenile humour has eased to the point where it won’t put off someone who can’t stand that kind of thing. It stands or falls by the strength of its characters though, as there’s no ongoing plot and only a paper-thin universe to inhabit. Luckily the cast is generally appealing, so it’s likely to hang around and maybe become even more Trek-like in its ability to find itself.

Second-season Discovery is a very different beast. The first episode of season two was an exhilarating left turn from the darkness and deceit of season one. With the arrival of Anson Mount’s Captain Pike, transferring across from the USS Enterprise to the USS Discovery, and the provision of a genuine scientific mystery to explore, this feels closer to the core of Trek than any series in years. Yes, it’s still shoehorned into existing Trek lore and filled with CGI and action sequences, but if one episode can be any indication, there’s a real sense that Discovery has figured out what worked about season one and decided to build on that. An increased focus on crew and camaraderie and the joy to be found in exploring the wonders of the galaxy seems to have been transplanted into the heart of the series. Maybe it’s just me, but that seems pretty hopeful.

And isn’t hope what Trek is really all about?