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Friday, 23 August 2019

Review Round-Up: The Last Wish; The Dragon Prince; The Outpost

The Last Wish: The collection of short stories that introduced us to The Witcher, Geralt (soon to have his own series on Netflix, starring Henry Cavill).

Set in a grimdark, Central Europe-inspired world, mixed with a heavy serving of Brothers Grimm twisted fairy tales, the stories - translated from the original Polish - manage to be both familiar and new.

The language is occasionally quirky and, more often than not, the "zingers" that sign off the stories fall a bit flat, but I suspect this is something that has been lost in translation.

Geralt's exploits are dramatic and visceral, some wearing their fairy tale roots on the sleeves (such as the brilliant reworking of Beauty & The Beast, in A Grain Of Truth, my favourite of all the yarns in this collection), while in others it's more buried (such as the very twisted spin on Snow White in The Lesser Evil).

The stories draw you in with their evocative, nightmarish descriptions, and gruff, engaging, and morally ambiguous characters.

And while the adventures may often be violent, much time is devoted to Geralt's investigations, in various manners, as to whether the so-called monster he is facing in a particular story is truly the evil beast it has been portrayed as.

I listened the Orion audiobook of The Last Wish, read by Peter Kenny, who does a magnificent job of giving all the characters recognisably unique voices (the choice to go Welsh with the dwarf, rather than the stereotypical Scottish, was much appreciated).

The Last Wish is followed by Sword Of Destiny (which I've just started), another collection of short stories, before the multi-volume Witcher saga that begins in Blood Of Elves.

The Dragon Prince, Seasons One & Two: I stumbled upon this, as is my wont, on Netflix while looking for a "filler" show... and ended up bingeing the two seasons that have so far been produced.

The Dragon Prince is an engaging fantasy story from the people who brought us the original, and wildly popular, Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon.

The same, beautiful, slick anime style (rather than, say, the more jagged approach of Castlevania) mixes with complex characters and engaging storylines as two young princes - and an elfin assassin (with a delightful Scottish accent)  - find themselves on a quest to prevent their world from being torn apart by war.

There are multiple strands to the story and a vast array of well-developed supporting characters, all with their own convictions and motivations, moving their own agendas forward, either interacting with the main protagonists or independently.

The cartoon also boasts an inventive - and inspirational - take on the various forms of magic that are central to the world of The Dragon Prince and the deep rift between the humans of The Pentarchy and the magical creatures of Xadia (such as the elves and dragons).

While I instantly fell in love with The Dragon Prince, and cannot wait for the third season to air (hopefully) later this year, there are some elements that aren't quite working for me yet.

The computer-generated animation is superb for most part, especially the elves and various critters, but some of the humans - particularly the key brother and sister team of Claudia and Soren - sometimes don't look quite right.

There's a bit of an uncanny valley thing going on there, I think, with some odd shading and vanishing noses.

I also have a bit of a problem with the brilliant General Amaya. While she's one of my favourite characters, and certainly not the sort of representation one usually sees in swords-and-sorcery, I find it difficult to grok how a deaf-mute became the leader of her country's army.

As someone who has to overcome his own handicaps, I hope it's deeper than the fact that she is the late queen's sister. I really think we need to see an episode exploring her backstory and ascension through the ranks.

But, please, don't let my quibbles put you off The Dragon Prince. With episodes lasting only about 23 minutes, and nine episodes a season, it's very easy to find yourself thinking "just one more..." and then getting through an entire season in a matter of hours.

The pacing is great as well, nothing is rushed, but then it never drags either, spending just the right amount of time in each location to tell a particular story then moving on to the next stage of the quest.

The Outpost, Season Two: We're almost half-way through the sophomore season of Arrowstorm's big break into television, The Outpost, and the show has improved in leaps and bounds since I made some rather snippy comments about it.

In the space of a half-a-dozen episodes it's gone from last season's "I'll watch this because it's like a Dungeons & Dragons LARP and because Jessica Green, the lead actress, is very easy on the eye" to "I have to watch this every week because it's one of my favourite shows".

An obvious - and much-needed - boost to the finances has seen improvements across the board, particularly in the sets and special effects.

The latter an essential part of a fantasy show allowing the directors to be braver with their creature and magic effects; and the former, especially with the titular Outpost itself, which always should have had a character of its own, means we are no longer distracted by the low-budget sheen and empty spaces.

You could almost imagine the story of The Outpost coming from the home D&D campaign of one of the show's creators.

There's an inescapable Keep On The Borderland feel to it, infused - subconsciously or not - with a hint of Game Of Thrones (the capture and breaking of the nominal hero of season one, Captain Garret Spears, played by the charming Jake Stormoen, was one castration away from being a total rip-off of the Reek/Ramsay Bolton sub-plot from GoT, but, ultimately, has gone in a very interesting direction).

Accentuating the homebrew D&D angle, though, is the rubbish name for the show's main non-human species, the not-elves known as The Blackbloods.

If it were a disparaging nickname, or even a racial slur (such as when aliens in Star Trek call humans "pink skins"), that would be one thing, but when they refer to themselves by that name, it's a bit cringe-worthy.

I'm holding out hope that, down the line, we learn that that's not what this race is really called, and that they actually have an exotic, alien-sounding, more poetic and less prosaic, racial nomenclature.

I, also, really can't stand Janzo (Anand Desai-Barochia), the over-the-top nerd/brewer/scientist. For some reason - I suspect a misguided attempt to make him appear vulnerable and charming - everything the character gets to do is just a bit creepy or sleazy and, often, inappropriate.

But, then again, I don't expect to like every character in a show. That only helps make it more "realistic".

However, as The Outpost goes from strength-to-strength, I hope that the rather lacklustre first season hasn't discouraged people from checking out the new season, and it can score enough viewers to earn more seasons.

There's clearly plenty of stories to tell in this world, and an ever-increasing budget and ever more confident actors means The Outpost will have the facilities to tell them.

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