Thursday, 31 August 2017

Orphan Black: Season 5

Sarah Manning is trapped and wounded on Revival, a secret Neolution island hideout in the Canadian Arctic. As she struggles to escape, Cosima learns of the history of the Neolution movement and some of the struggles it has faced to survive and make human cloning a reality. The moment Neolution has been working towards for decades is at hand and Sarah's daughter Kira will play a key role...if Sarah and here sisters will allow it.

Orphan Black began in 2013 as a mystery drama focused on the suicide of a young woman, witnessed by her exact duplicate. Since then the show has moved from corporate drama to soap opera to a demented vision of suburban hell, all the while rooted in Tatiana Maslany's flawless, jaw-dropping portrayal of half a dozen different-but-identical characters at the same time, backed by an ample array of supporting castmembers. It's hard to argue that the show hasn't taken wrong turns - the "male clones" storyline in Season 3 was never as compelling as it should have been and too many strong supporting characters have ended up benched with nothing to do (hi Art) - but for the most part Orphan Black has been a compelling, rich drama.

The fifth and final season of the show features both the best and worse excesses of the show. On the minus side, there's a lot of characters grumbling in comfortable offices about cloning and cells and test tubes and Sarah's daughter is really important because of vague reasons. We've seen this storyline before for four previous seasons and it's gotten a little old by this point. We're more invested in Rachel as a character at this point so her POV is interesting in this world, but ultimately the reveal of the Real Big Bad of the Entire Show is a letdown. The first half of the season, which features an uneasy alliance between Team Sarah and Neolution, feels like it's grinding its gears a bit too much.

The latter half sees things improve. Once again there is a solid enemy to fight and the show unexpectedly develops teeth. Orphan Black has always been a ruthless show - remember it started with a young woman throwing herself in front of a train and a murderous assassin slaughtering her own clones with wild abandon - but as it heads towards the endgame it becomes quite astonishingly ruthless, slaughtering most of the extraneous secondary cast of the show with enthusiasm. Some of these deaths hit hard and their ramifications are explored, but others feel far too off-hand and feel like the writers wanted to close off a number of storylines that otherwise would be left dangling.

This would be more effective if they still didn't end up leaving a lot of stories underserviced: remember Cal, Sarah's on-off boyfriend and Kira's father? Or the shadow organisation Topside? The writers clearly chose not to revisit some plot elements, especially ones that people had forgotten about, but I suspect these dropped storylines will be more glaring for future viewers watching the show's relatively modest 50-episode full run in one go.

The show's final two episodes deliver a surprisingly low-key ending: villains are defeated, good guys are saved and the sisters come together to ask the question, "What next?" And surprisingly we get a lot of examination of that question, particularly how it pertains to Sarah. When we first met Sarah she was a screw-up and the crazy situation with her newly-discovered sisters gave her a focus and purpose in life. When that situation is resolved for good, she finds herself questioning her purpose and her point in life, and the show brings things full circle by contrasting Sarah as she is now with how she was at the start. This is a tremendously powerful way of ending the show, delivering the end to a thematic arc that a lot of viewers could have been forgiven for forgetting about. Ultimately Orphan Black wasn't about the dazzling visual effects that allowed Maslany to play four distinct characters in one shot simultaneously, it was about each of these flawed and human people, and in the finale the show resolves those character arcs with tremendous skill.

Orphan Black's fifth season (****) overindulges in the show's tendency towards repetitive and tiresome conspiracy theories in its opening half, but later on reasserts itself by refocusing on its core characters and bringing them all to an appropriate, powerful ending. The show will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the USA in September 2017, with a UK release to follow. However, the entire series is available now on Netflix in the UK and Ireland.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 2, Episodes 5-6

B5: The Long Dark
Airdates: 30 November 1994 (US), 7 March 1995 (UK)
Written by Scott Frost
Directed by Mario DiLeo
Cast: Mariah Cirrus (Anne-Marie Johnson), Amis (Dwight Schultz), Alien 1 (Jennifer Anglin), Alien 2 (Neil Bradley), Medtech (James Kiriyama-Tech), Ambassador Vershaar (Kim Strauss), Guard (Warren Tabata)

Plot:    The USS Copernicus, lost in space for a hundred years, drifts past Babylon 5 and is salvaged. The vessel was launched shortly before Earth made contact with the Centauri and gained jump gate technology, allowing them to take to the stars. The slower-than-light cryogenic freezer ships launched to colonise other star systems were virtually forgotten. One of the ship’s crew has survived, but the other is dead.

Dr. Franklin revives the survivor, Mariah Cirrus, but discovers that her husband did not die of natural causes. Meanwhile, Garibaldi encounters a lurker named Amis who appears to be deranged, continuously claiming that an alien force is coming for him. Calming him down, Garibaldi learns that Amis, like Garibaldi himself, was in the marines (“ground-pounders”, or GROPOS) during the Earth-Minbari War. An alien unlike anything seen before destroyed the listening post he was serving at and only Amis survived. Since then he has felt that the alien is drawn to him. Lurkers start turning up dead in Downbelow and both the Narns and Markabs (one of the non-aligned races) begin claiming that an alien force has come onto the station from the Copernicus. Garibaldi uses Amis to flush out the creature and he and a security team manage to kill it. Mariah returns to Earth to investigate this new future, whilst G’Kar finds a picture of the alien in The Book of G’Quan. Ivanova examines the course of the Copernicus and discovers it was headed for the same planet G’Kar visited a few weeks ago: Z’ha’dum.


Terry Pratchett's unfinished novels destroyed by steamroller

On Terry Pratchett's explicit instructions, the last novel he was working on at the time of his death and notes, fragments and outlines for several more books have all been destroyed. A six-and-a-half-ton steamroller named "Lord Jericho" was used to flatten the hard drive containing the notes and outlines.

The famously prolific Pratchett - he wrote 41 novels in his Discworld series alone between 1983 and 2015 - usually worked on several projects simultaneously. He did not want his unfinished work being used to churn out more books after his death to make money, hence the instruction to his assistant and literary executor Rob to make sure no-one could do so.

Details on the in-progress works are scarce, but it is believed that Raising Taxes - a fourth and possibly concluding Moist von Lipwig novel - was among the ideas Pratchett had sketched out. He'd originally planned this to be the third Lipwig book, but superseded it with Raising Steam.

Pratchett fans will no doubt be happy that his last wishes were respected, but it is still intriguing that we'll never know where Pratchett planned to take his signature creation next.

Before his death, Pratchett did give his daughter Rihanna (a long-term writer in journalism and video game writing) tacit permission to write Discworld novels, but she chose not to pursue this idea. Instead, she is working on adaptations of Pratchett's work for the screen, such as the long-gestating City Watch TV series.

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Comic Issues 2-4

DC2-4: Treason, In Harm’s Way, The Price of Peace
Publication Date: November 1994-February 1995
Written by Mark Moretti (from an outline by J. Michael Straczynski)
Artwork by Michael Netzer (pencils), Rob Leigh (inks) & Robbie Busch (colours) (DC2, DC 4)
Artwork by Carlos Garzon (pencils), Rob Leigh (inks) & Robbie Busch (colours) (DC3)

Date: Ivanova is still a Lieutenant Commander and Garibaldi is still off-duty but Delenn is out of her chrysalis, meaning the story is set between the events of B2 and B3.

Plot: Babylon 5 receives a distress call from starliner Chiyoda-Ku and dispatches Zeta Wing to investigate. Lt. Keffer discovers that the ship is adrift and the crew are all dead. Zeta Wing tows the ship back to Babylon 5. The initial investigation shows that the crew and passengers were asphyxiated on purpose. One crewman has survived because he put on a breather unit, but was shot and is now in critical condition.

A terrorist named Jason Colby is working undercover on Babylon 5. Learning of the Chiyoda-Ku’s arrival, he tries to murder the survivor but is unaware that he is a telepath. Colby is overpowered by a mind blast and the survivor escapes into the station. As the station goes on alert, Ivanova confirms that the Chiyoda-Ku was captured by Earthforce in an arms-smuggling operation two years ago.

The survivor from the ship, Dexter Hall, collapses in Talia Winters’ quarters. Winters scans him and discovers that he is Psi Cop working undercover in a pro-Earth group who had blamed President Santiago’s murder on aliens. Hall had uncovered evidence that the group had supplied weapons to help assassinate the new Minbari leader and had been exposed in trying to raise the alarm.

The Minbari warcruiser Solaris, carrying newly-appointed Earth Ambassador Jeffrey Sinclair, rendezvouses with the Minbari flyer carrying an important passenger, a member of the Grey Council. Sinclair suspects the satai might be Delenn, but is prevented from speaking to her. He is allowed to send a message to Babylon 5. He talks to Garibaldi and expresses relief that he is recovering from being shot. Garibaldi confirms that Delenn has left her cocoon and is now on her way to Minbar.

Arriving on Minbar, Sinclair is shown to his new resident, the Earth Alliance Embassy. He is visited by Ambassador Delenn, and is shocked by her transformation. Delenn confirms that the chrysalis has left her transformed into a half-Minbari, half-human hybrid. She expresses regret that Sinclair did not see her before the transformation and learn of the secret of the Battle of the Line that way. Minbari guards burst into the embassy and arrest Sinclair: a sniper rifle and a map of the coronation route for the new leader were found amongst Sinclair’s belongings.

Captain Sheridan contacts Earth and discusses the situation with Senator Hidoshi. Hidoshi tells Sheridan that Dexter Hall is a rogue telepath working outside of Psi Corps or Earthforce authority. Earthforce Colonel Rabock has been diverted to Babylon 5 to take Hall into custody. Sheridan is baffled by this information, which contradicts what Talia found in Hall’s mind. Hidoshi tells Sheridan that there is a possibility that Hall is really “Cypher”, a near-legendary rogue telepath who has operated outside the law for years and is wanted on several worlds for various criminal activities. Sheridan considers this idea dubious.

Jason Colby panics that he could be identified by Talia Winters and plans to assassinate her. He is halted by his superior, Webster, who tells him to stand down. Colby demands that Webster help him get off B5, and Webster assures him that he is on his way.

Hall is dying, so Talia conducts a deep scan. She confirms that he was working for Earthforce and had infiltrated the Chiyoda-Ku to expose a Home Guard-style anti-alien group. The “Homers” were celebrating the death of Luis Santiago, who favoured closer ties with aliens, and one of them boasted he had smuggled a weapon to Minbar to help assassinate the new leader. Hall was exposed and vented the atmosphere into space to kill the other people on board, but he was injured in the process. Hall dies after the scan is complete and just as “Colonel Rabock” – who is clearly Webster – shows up.

Webster is furious, claiming that Talia’s scan killed “Cypher”. Sheridan says he doesn’t believe that Hall was Cypher, or that Cypher even exists. Webster orders Sheridan to have Hall’s body transferred to his ship.

Webster contacts one of his superiors on Earth, who outlines the full plan: Sinclair was to be framed for attempting to kill the Minbari leader on his own initiative, but the assassination was never meant to actually succeed, as that would have started another war. The primary objective was to sever Earth-Minbari relationships and leave Earth more isolated. Webster confirms that he can expose Colby as the guy who put the weapon in Sinclair’s belongings and gain cover that way, but his superior points out this will exonerate Sinclair and also interfere with their cover story that Hall was Cypher. To create maximum confusion, Rabock is ordered to kill Colby. Unbeknown to Webster, Colby has tapped into his communications link and overhead everything, including the news that Webster murdered his wife and blamed it on aliens to recruit Colby to the anti-alien cause.

On Minbar Delenn brings news of the investigation on Babylon 5 to the three-man judicial team, but they are unmoved. Neither is Alyt Neroon, serving as prosecutor. Delenn invokes Grey Council authority to reveal that Sinclair has a Minbari soul and that no Minbari may kill another, so they cannot execute Sinclair, but Neroon outright rejects the claim as superstitious nonsense. To Delenn’s concern, the three judges concur.

Garibaldi discovers security video evidence confirming that Colby was the one who smuggled the assassination weapon onto Delenn’s ship. He confirms that Colby has worked on Babylon 5 for over a year and was previously with Earthforce Special Forces, quitting after his wife was killed in an accident involving a Minbari transport. Webster goes to kill Colby, only to be overpowered. Sheridan and Garibaldi arrive to find Colby with his hostage. They agree to let him go before stopping his ship outside with Starfuries. However, it turns out that Webster is really Cypher. He overpowers Colby with a mind blast, but Colby opens fire with his weapon, puncturing an oxygen tank and blowing the entire ship up…along with most of the evidence that will exonerate Sinclair (since video images can be doctored, they needed Colby alive to be scanned by Minbari telepaths to confirm his guilt).

In the trial, Sinclair is found guilty. He invokes an ancient law, offering his life in a trial by combat to repair relations between the two races. The judges are forced to agree, but the new Minbari leader intervenes. He offers Sinclair a full pardon and withdraws the charges, citing Sinclair as an honourable man and agreeing to let him remain as Ambassador.

Later, Sinclair sees Delenn off as she returns to Babylon 5. Sinclair says that he knew that Neroon and even the judges didn’t believe in the Minbari soul situation, but the Grey Council did, and it was a calculated risk that they would not allow him – and his Minbari soul – to be executed.

On Babylon 5 Garibaldi expresses doubt in the whole Cypher thing, but the crew are surprised when he “real” Colonel Rabock shows up to take over the investigation. She is left very confused as they report what has happened.

On Earth, Webster’s superior begins running a search for a new telepath to take over the role of Cypher.

The Arc: Neroon learns of the reason why the Minbari surrendered during the Battle of the Line and outright rejects it as superstitious nonsense. He follows up on this in episode B11.

The Cypher plot may be related to the Control programme, and his superiors may work for Bureau 13 as seen in B6 and B19.

Background: Minbari flyer Zhalan rendezvouses with the warcruiser Solaris 3.8 parsecs (12.39 light-years) from Babylon 5. This location is two days from Minbar.

The Shi-Ki is the Minbari ceremony where the new leader of the Grey Council is formally installed.

Yedor is the capital city of Minbar.

One of the titles for the Minbari leader is “Chosen One”. The location for his installation on Minbari is the Palatium. Trials are held in the Judicial Court Building.

Babylon 5 has at least 94 docking bays.

References: Minbari warcruiser Solaris is named for Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s iconoic 1961 science fiction novel. It has been filmed three times, by Boris Nirenburg in 1968, by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 (this film won the Grand Prix at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival) and by Steven Soderbergh in 2002, starring George Clooney.

The starliner Chiyoda-ku is named after the Chiyoda-ku or Chiyoda District (sometimes Chiyoda City), a special ward of Tokyo, the capital city of Japan. It consists of the Imperial Palace and the surrounding region out to a distance of a kilometre. Hibiya Park, the National Museum of Modern Art and Yasukuni Shrine are located in this district.

It’s possible, if random, that Jason Colby is named after the patriarch of the Colby family in American prime-time soap opera Dynasty and its spin-off, The Colbys. Jason Colby was played by Charlton Heston.

Mistakes, Retcons and Lamentations: The Solaris left Earth for Minbar around 8 January 2259. Delenn comes out of her chrysalis around 22 January. She catches up with the Solaris a few days later in this issue, which suggests it is a three-week journey from Earth to Minbar. This is shown to be erroneous in later episodes (particularly Season 4) where the journey appears to be just a few days, similar to other trips through hyperspace between B5 and the alien homeworlds.

However, it is possible that the Solaris was taking a circuitous route to Minbar, stopping at many other worlds before heading to Minbar directly. The fact that Delenn’s flyer is able to intercept them at all suggests this might be the case.

Neroon’s account of learning about the Minbari soul situation in episode B11 is somewhat at variance with how he learns about it in this story arc (most notably, there is no indication in B11 that he learned it from Delenn and had discussed it with her previously).

Webster’s ship is routed to Bay 13, but episode B13 confirms that Bay 13 has been reserved for the exclusive use of Ambassador Kosh’s transport ship since PM.

At one point, it is confirmed that Colby served with “Colonel Rabock” in Earthforce, which is where he met Webster, but given that Rabock is later revealed to be a totally different person, this makes no sense. My guess is that that writer meant to expose Rabock as Webster and Webster would have been Colby’s superior, but this got lost in edits.

Episode A20 suggests that the Minbari leader spends his life on the Minbari flagship warcruiser (named in secondary material as the Valen’tha) and is kept far away from Minbar. However, in this comic arc the Minbari leader is shown to be living on Minbar. NOV9 explains the discrepancy, that the Grey Council wanted to keep their leader closer to the people.

Behind the Scenes: Straczynski provided the outline for this story arc, but for complicated legal reasons was not formally credited in the issues themselves.

Familiar Faces: Racine is a member of the Minbari religious caste working as a liaison with Sinclair. Kozorr is a Minbari security officer with responsibility for security for the new Minbari leader’s installation parade.

Although not confirmed in this comic or NOV9, the new Minbari leader Jenimer is likely the acting chairman of the Grey Council who gave the Triluminary to Delenn in episode A20.

Senator Hidoshi (seen several times in Season 1 as the liaison between B5 and the station’s Senate Oversight Committee) contacts Sheridan in this issue. He retires some time between the events of this issue, which likely takes place in late January or early February 2259, and episode B15, which takes place in September.

Review: Well, it’s not great. The stakes and plotting are muddled and rogue telepaths, racist terrorists and shady ex-military special forces agents working undercover are all Babylon 5 tropes that are getting worn by this point (not to mention that episode B6, airing in close proximity to this story arc, does the same thing more concisely and more interestingly). Sinclair’s story on Minbar is more interesting, but relegated to a subplot. It’s all readable, but the artwork is mediocre and the story not really that compelling. Still, it fills in some blanks in the story arc. **½

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Monday, 28 August 2017

GAME OF THRONES: Season 7 Fact Check

Season 7 of Game of Thrones has attracted some criticism for being a bit...dumb, compared to previous seasons. Defenders have suggested that almost every criticism levelled against the show this year can be dismissed with an explanation, even if it is not explicitly given on the show. In the interests of fair play and cheap page hits, I'll attempt to do just this with the GAME OF THRONES SEASON 7 FACT CHECK.

1. Why didn't Cersei blowing up the Great Sept of Baelor in the Season 6 finale have a bigger impact in the Seven Kingdoms?

In the final episode of Season 6, Cersei Lannister overcame her enemies in King's Landing by tricking them into all gathering in one place - the Great Sept of Baelor - and then blowing it sky high with titanic amounts of wildfire. The High Septon, Ser Kevan Lannister, Ser Lancel Lannister, Lord Mace Tyrell, Queen Margaery Tyrell and Ser Loras Tyrell were all incinerated. King Tommen Lannister, distraught at the deaths of so many innocents (including his wife), killed himself shortly afterwards). In the aftermath Cersei crowned herself Queen of the Seven Kingdoms and took the Iron Throne for herself, despite having no real claim to it.

This is an easy decision to criticise: we know from Seasons 5 and 6 that the wanton slaughter of the War of the Five Kings has driven millions of Westerosi back into the worship of the Faith of the Seven. The new High Septon comes to power from being genuinely a man of peace, faith and vision (and also a fundamentalist martinet out to slaughter all enemies of the Faith, but still). Cersei blowing him and most of the Faith sky-high might be satisfying in the short term, but realistically it would enrage millions of followers of the Faith, lead to her being denounced as a monster and usurper by septons and septs up and down Westeros and would drive lots of lords from her cause. Because she also murders her uncle, cousin and daughter-by-marriage, she would also be dubbed a kinslayer, a horrendous curse in the Seven Kingdoms. We don't see any of this in the show.

However, Season 7 does suggest that Cersei's grip on power is very shaky (Jaime says as much several times). The Lannister army and the Westerlands remain Cersei's primary support and pretty much everyone else has already sided against her. The show doesn't have any reason to delve into the little people living in the Crownlands and Stormlands (the other regions more or less loyal to King's Landing at this point) so their viewpoint is unknown, and we don't know how many other people decamped from her side after the massacre. Season 7 does show other lords being wooed back to Cersei's side once the dust settles and she's still alive, so political expediency likely won over a lot of support lost in the Septocalypse.

"Now I'm king, let's go plane some wood! Bring me my lathe!"

2. How did Euron Greyjoy build a new fleet so fast?

Back in Season 6, Episode 5 (The Door), Euron Greyjoy wins the Kingsmoot to be crowned King of the Iron Islands, only to find that Yara and Theon have fled with most of the ironborn fleet. They wind up in Meereen and swear fealty to Daenerys. Euron pledges to build a new fleet, vowing to have a thousand ships to take into battle.

In Season 7, Episode 1 (Dragonstone) this fleet shows up at King's Landing to join forces with the Lannisters, to Cersei's delight and Jaime's disquiet, and is deployed in the very next episode to destroy most of Yara and Theon's forces.

With this one, I think we have to assume that, despite indications to the contrary, Yara and Theon only took a small portion of the total ironborn fleet to Meereen and Euron thus inherited an already-substantial force which he later augmented with a relatively small number of new ships - built or perhaps seized on the Summer Sea and in the Stepstones during the long journey around Westeros - rather than that he built hundreds upon hundreds of pretty large warships from scratch and sailed them thousands of miles right around the coast of Westeros in the space of a few months.

"How did you get here so fast?"
"We opened a warren."
"Isn't that a different fantasy series?"

3. Why didn't Daenerys blockade Blackwater Bay?

At the end of Season 7, Episode 1, Daenerys lands on Dragonstone with a substantial force: 100,000+ Dothraki and their horses, thousands of Unsullied (originally 6,000 but many were lost in Meereen) and a fleet of at least 350 warships and transports, not to mention three huge dragons. Due to the need to carry both Dothraki and their horses, this fleet would need to actually be considerably larger, or used in ferrying operations (perhaps only some Dothraki went with Dany and the rest rode to Pentos and were ferried across the Narrow Sea in shifts).

Dragonstone sits at the mouth of Blackwater Bay, where it meets the Narrow Sea, and is highly defensible. The only way in or out of the Bay is the Gullet, a narrow stretch of water to the south of the island (the channel to the north, between the islands of Dragonstone and Driftmark and the mainland of Crackclaw Point, is apparently too rocky and too narrow for large fleets to traverse). In the novels, the Gullet is about sixty miles wide; however, due to the fact that TV Westeros is significantly smaller than Book Westeros, the TV version of the channel must be significantly smaller and thus easier to blockade.

However, in Season 7, Episode 2 (Stormborn) Euron's fleet is able to leave Blackwater Bay and pursue and destroy Yara and Theon's fleet as it sails down the coast to pick up the Dornish army. It would seem to be strategic folly for Daenerys to leave Blackwater Bay unguarded; even if Dany's fleet is half or less the size of Euron's armada, it should be still be possible to deploy her dragons and sink the fleet. The only assumption I can make here is the Daenerys did not bother to scout King's Landing and didn't know that Euron's fleet was present, and most or all of Dany's military fleet was sent to Dorne and the ships that were left behind were not sufficient to challenge Euron. Dany may also have chosen not to deploy the dragons and risk them in battle at this time.

To be honest, none of this really washes. Dany has enough competent military advisors to know that scouting King's Landing to learn the disposition of Cersei's forces (particularly her navy; it's worth remembering, unlike in the books, the Royal Fleet has not been destroyed or stolen in the TV series) is essential, and the geography makes impossible for even a small detachment of Euron's fleet to simply sneak past Dragonstone without anyone noticing.

"Good thing the Tyrells don't have the biggest army in Westeros or anything!" *fistbump*

4. The battles of Casterly Rock and Highgarden don't make sense.

They don't, and this plot point really can't be salvaged. Nevertheless, we'll make an attempt.

In the case of the attack on Casterly Rock, the Unsullied sail from Dragonstone to the Westerlands, disembark and besiege the castle. Grey Worm leads an infiltration of the fortress, opens the gates and the Unsullied take the castle with relative ease: the Lannisters have abandoned the fortress. Euron's fleet then closes the trap on the Unsullied and destroys their fleet, blockading them by sea.

This plan has a lot of holes, most notably allowing your enemy to gain control of an impregnable, well-stocked fortress on the mainland. A great house losing their stronghold is also always seen as a titanic display of weakness: Robb losing Winterfell to the Greyjoys in Season 2 is enough to spark his decision to return home in Season 3 and we know how that turned out.

We can assume that Grey Worm and his fleet left Dragonstone before the ironborn/Dornish armada. This explains why Euron simply didn't destroy them at sea, they were too far behind and didn't catch up until the Unsullied had already taken Casterly Rock. We can also assume that the Lannister plan to turn and besiege Casterly Rock didn't happen; given that the Unsullied army is back at King's Landing in the Season 7 finale, it's likely the Unsullied sortied ASAP and headed north and east through the Riverlands (where no effective resistance is left) before circling back down towards the capital, preventing the Lannisters (too far to the south at Highgarden) from intercepting them.

Unfortunately, whilst the Casterly Rock campaign can be (sort of, if you squint a bit) salvaged, Highgarden cannot with some major logic leaps.

We know from Season 2 (and not even touching the books, with their much more detailed military numbers) that King Renly Baratheon commanded an army of over one hundred thousand troops, most of them from the Reach. Ser Loras Tyrell is noted as an incredibly impressive warrior (even if we never see any evidence of it on the show) and Lord Randyll Tarly, a Tyrell loyalist, is noted as an impressive battlefield commander. The immense power of House Tyrell later on, with the Queen of Thorns and Margaery Tyrell able to use the threat of House Tyrell withdrawing its support for the Lannisters to force concessions even from Tywin Lannister, is reiterated quite a few times.

But in Season 7, Episode 3 (The Queen's Justice), the considerably smaller (and battle-worn) Lannister army routs the Tyrell host and seizes Highgarden. The only nod to the Tyrell's previously-established military superiority is Jaime saying that the Tyrells aren't great fighters, which feels a bit unconvincing. The Lannister host was originally 60,000 strong (in Season 1, Episode 7). Half of this army routs at the Whispering Wood. Another Lannister host is raised, but this is destroyed at Oxcross in Season 2, Episode 4 (Garden of Bones). This leaves the main Lannister army (the one Tywin commands from Harrenhal in Season 2 and, allied to the Tyrells, saves King's Landing at the Blackwater) at only 30,000 in strength. We can assume that Jaime eventually rallies some of the survivors of the other armies and increases this in number, but at best the Lannister army is half the size of the Tyrell one.

There are several equalising factors. The most notable is when Lord Tarly and several other Reach lords betray Highgarden for Cersei. This would both reduce the Tyrell strength and increase the Lannister's. We can also assume that some other lords would stand aside and not take the field rather than choose sides. This could reduce the Tyrell strength significantly, although still not enough to result in a massacre rather than a pitched battle which would reduce the Lannister strength quite considerably even in victory. The speed of the Lannister advance and their decision to strip Casterly Rock bare to support the attack may make a surprise attack plausible, but whichever way you cut it, this is a massive stretch of credibility.

5. How did Daenerys's army take Jaime's by surprise?

At the end of Season 7, Episode 4 (The Spoils of War), the Targaryen army, backed up by dragonfire, catches the Lannister-Tarly host strung out along the Blackwater and utterly destroys it in a spectacular display of Daenerys's power. However, some have questioned if it is plausible that Dany's forces could arrive undetected. In the medieval period it was very rare for armies to catch one another by surprise: large armies moved very slowly and single outriders and scouts could easily stumble across an enemy force and retreat to give warning of their approach.

This point is debatable. First of all, we need to locate the battlefield. We know it's on the Blackwater and we know that leading elements of the convoy have already reached King's Landing. Jaime wants the rear of the convoy through the gates before nightfall, so assuming that scene is near dawn (which makes sense, the convoy is breaking camp and getting ready to move) King's Landing is probably no more than thirty miles away.

Dany's ground force in this battle is exclusively made up of Dothraki, a fast-moving cavalry army. Although this army would move very quickly compared to one made of footsoldiers, it would still be slower than individual scouts and outriders. It is possible that Jaime did not send out scouts, or if he did he kept these oriented to the south, fearing an attack by Tyrell loyalists. However, given Jaime's superior generalmanship, this seems unlikely. More possible is that the Lannister scouts were spotted and killed by the Dothraki (or dragons) before giving warning.

More problematic is how the Dothrkai landed on the mainland unimpeded. We'll assume that not all 100,000+ Dothraki were sent and a much smaller force landed, one that could be sailed across Blackwater Bay and landed south of the Blackwater Rush in one go, quite quickly. The southern banks of the Blackwater are heavily forested, which is not ideal cavalry country, but we can assume that over the course of a few days the Dothraki were able to land, cut their way through the woods and then circle around to attack the Lannister force in the nick of time before it escaped. This does all suggest that the entire ironborn fleet went west with Euron and the royal fleet remains AWOL, leaving King's Landing and the approaching sealanes completely defenceless, which is a bit weird, but okay.

6. Operation Wightcatcher: like, how?

The sixth episode of GoT's seventh season features the Westerosi All-Star Rumble Squad (Jon Snow, Tormund Giantsbane, Jorah Mormont, Thoros of Myr, Beric Dondarrion, Sandor Clegane, Gendry Boatrower and a conveniently vague number of extras) being formed to capture a wight and use it to convince Cersei Lannister to agree to a truce so everyone in the Seven Kingdoms can team up against the Night King and his army of White Walkers. We'll gloss over the fact that whoever came up with this plan was clearly tripping balls and focus on how the operation unfolds.

Our heroes set out from Eastwatch-by-the-Sea and head north for a vague distance, but clearly hours/many miles. As they head north, they engage in #bants and learn more about each other as people, whilst fighting off a zombie polar bear (potentially some kind of Lost reference, I don't know). Eventually, they capture a wight and are then attacked by the entire goddamned Army of Darkness. Gendry runs off to the Wall to get help.

At this point logic checks out and some very weird things happen. Gendry runs back to the Wall, apparently in just a few hours, and sends off an emergency raven from Eastwatch to Dragonstone. Daenerys heeds the call and rockets north with her dragons to supply a dramatic rescue. During all of this, our heroes are stuck on a frozen lake surrounded by extras from The Walking Dead.

Subquestion 1: How far can ravens fly in one day?

The answer seems to be that no-one really knows. However, the greatest distance covered in one day by a racing pigeon appears to be 750 miles, from Lulea to Malmo in Sweden, and 720 miles, from Nantes in France to Fraserburgh in Scotland, both done in about fourteen hours. That puts their speed at approximately 50-55mph.

Dragonstone is approximately 1,500 miles south of Eastwatch in a straight line using the book maps, but recalling that TV Westeros is smaller than Book Westeros, we can assume that it's certainly less than 1,400 miles. Ergo, a raven from Eastwatch could plausibly reach Dragonstone in two days (possibly less if there is a relay system with the raven resting at another castle along the way and a maester relaying the message to a fresh raven).

Subquestion 2: How far can dragons fly in one day?

Assuming Daenerys sorties immediately, how fast could her dragons get back to the scene of the action? Obviously dragons don't exist, so this is a bit more open to argument, and of course that argument ends only one way: they fly at the speed of plot.

More satisfyingly, we know from A Dance with Dragons that Drogon can traverse half the width of Meereen in a few seconds and Meereen is one of the largest cities in the ASoIaF world. More specifically, in The Rogue Prince it is said that Syrax and Caraxes could fly the distance from Dragonstone to King's Landing - about 400 miles in a straight line in the books so less in the TV show - and back again in less than a day. That suggests that the dragons can at least match the ravens/racing pigeons in velocity.

Given a dragon's much greater strength, wingspan and the fact that they are inherently magical (because to really exist a dragon would need a wing/body ratio far out of keeping with most depictions of the creatures), it is not unreasonable to suggest that they are twice as fast as a pigeon, which would indicate that the dragons could reach the site of the battle in as little as one day after leaving Dragonstone.

Thus, the total time that Team Snow spent on the island would be around three days. This is not completely implausible and is also backed up by the need for the lake to refreeze: at minus 20 degrees, it takes approximately three days to form ten inches of ice, which is what will be needed to support the weight of individual wights crossing the ice.

Ergo, and maybe surprisingly, this one is actually pretty plausible.

7. Is it plausible that the Night King could kill Viserion?

Only if the Night King is Superman.

Although let's back that up a bit. The Night King throws an ice spear which punctures Viserion's throat mid-fireblast and causes him to partially explode before plummeting out of the sky and crashing through the ice to his icy death.

I had some satisfaction from predicting very early in my time on (a dozen years ago now) that the only thing that could pose a threat to Dany's dragons was an AA missile launcher. I just wasn't quite expecting this theory to turn out to be so accurate.

The Ringer called in Olympic javelin thrower Kara Winger to analyse the Night King's form. Her analysis was that the Night King did not put sufficient force into the throw for it to be convincing on its own merits, or to put it another way, despite some good aiming technique the Night King basically hurled the ice javelin a bit off-handedly. The javelin travelled easily more than 100 metres (the world record javelin throw is 103 metres, achieved by Uwe Hohn at the 1984 Olympics) and was still going fast enough and with enough force to kill Viserion. Even given that Viserion was flying at high speed towards the javelin (so the dragon's own velocity played a role in the blow being fatal), this was a hugely impressive feat.

To put it another way, the Night King is basically Superman. The White Walkers seem to have superior strength to normal humans anyway, and the Night King seems to be an order of magnitude above that. If the Night King ever gets into a swordfight with someone (which is entirely possible), he'd probably be able to split them in half with a flick of his wrist. I wouldn't even put Gregor up against him.

8. Where the hell did the wights get those chains from and why did they carry them hundreds of miles?

This is actually a more involved question, leading into both why the White Walkers took forever to get from Hardhome to Eastwatch (a trivially tiny distance compared to the distances traversed by everyone else this season alone) and what the Night King's original plan was to get through the Wall, given that the book-maguffin that everyone expects the to bring the Wall down (the Horn of Joramun) effectively does not exist in the TV show.

In order for this all to make sense we need to rewind. The Night King seems to be preternaturally aware of supernatural stuff going on in the world. He knows when Bran is spying on him and can disperse his ravens as well as "marking him" through their shared visions. This may be a result of the obsidian sword being plunged into him near a heart tree, and may have given him some of Bran's powers. As such, it is not implausible that the Night King has sensed the return of the dragons and knows they are (relatively) close by on Dragonstone. He also knows that dragons are magical creatures and may be able to overcome the Wall's own magical defences. Those defences seem to prevent both the White Walkers and wights from climbing, passing through, under or over the Wall (although they can be carried through and reanimate on the other side), so he needs some more firepower.

So if his plan is to bag a dragon, he knows he'll need chains. Hardhome, being a port with ships tying up, likely has a ready supply of chains so he makes sure his minions grab those (he might have been thinking to restrain a dragon rather than having to get it out of a frozen ice lake, but he can adapt his plans on the fly, which is why he's king). Then it's just a question of waiting for Jon to return and try something which he can use to lure the dragons in, kill one and turn it.

It's a bit of a stretch (cough), because it requires the Night King (whom we don't have much solid info on in terms of abilities) to have some pretty advanced magical knowledge, but it's not impossible.

Subquestion 1: Why kill Viserion and not Drogon?

It's possible that if the Night King killed Drogon - and thus Daenerys - the other two dragons would go psycho and burn the Night King before he can get a second ice spear ready. Bringing down Viserion and making Team Dany flee therefore makes more tactical sense. The Night King is playing the long game here and the most important thing for him is securing a Wall-destroying weapon, not wiping everyone out at this point. Plenty of time for that later.

Convinced? No, me neither. Still, you can kind of make a half-hearted nod at there being an explanation, which also encompasses why the White Walkers didn't make a beeline for Eastwatch straight from Hardhome.

Why don't the White Walkers advance straight on the Wall after securing Viserion, since weeks must elapse whilst Jon and Daenerys are visiting King's Landing, planning on Dragonstone and heading back to Winterfell? Er, pass.

Feels like another line is...missing.

9. Why does Daenerys think she's infertile?

Because of Mirri Maz Duur's prophecy, that she is effectively infertile and cannot bear a living child until the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, the mountains blow in the wind like leaves and the sea dries up etc.

Look at this scene from Season 1:

Wait, where's the line?

Oh, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss edited the line out because...reasons. Okay, we'll assume that Mirri Maz Duur told Daenerys she was infertile off-camera. Or something.


10. Can you really get to Winterfell from King's Landing in two weeks?

No. The show firmly established that it's a one-month ride from King's Landing to Winterfell (and more like two months in the books) in the very first episode of the entire series. The Dothraki might be able to shave a few days off that since they are so rad, but halving the time is implausible. It would require them to do almost 100 miles a day, every day, through winter weather, continuously for two weeks and the Dothraki are not particularly equipped for long winter rides.

The wording of the scene is a little anomalous; it might be that they were intending to land the Dothraki further up the coast, so they'd have a bit less to ride than the full distance from King's Landing, before the boats return to pick up Dany and Jon.

11. Do a million people live in King's Landing?

In the books the population of King's Landing, when it's swollen with refugees and soldiers during the events of A Storm of Swords, is said to be half a million. Logically, during peacetime, the population would probably be more like 350,000 to 400,000. That's still on the high side for a medieval city, but hey, it's fantasy.

Crucially, the line giving the population of King's Landing in the books is missing from the show, so the population being a million is, with the internal consistency of the show, not impossible. It seems a bit ludicrous, especially given how small the city appears (a hold-over from them filming in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and basing the city on Dubrovnik's Old Town, which is very small indeed), but perhaps the official population of the city includes some surrounding farms, towns and villages and Tyrion is rounding up a fair bit.

12. Do more people live in King's Landing than the North?

No. Robb Stark took 20,000 men south when he went to fight the Lannisters, and Jon and Sansa have managed to raise about another 6-10,000 men for their conflicts. Given the vagaries of medieval supply and army size, an army of around 30,000 would require a minimum supporting population of about three million (in the medieval period the ratio of soldiers to the rest of the population was about 1-99). Ergo, the North cannot have a population as small as one million. It should be noted that the North, even given the smaller size of Show Westeros, would still swallow three million people scattered across its area and still be quite sparsely populated.

So there you have it, some of the issues with Season 7 aren't really problems, others are hand-waveable and others actually really are just nonsense. Let's now look forwards to Season 8 when we can do this all over again.

Game of Thrones: Season 7

The Seven Kingdoms stand on a knife's edge. In Winterfell House Stark has dramatically regained power, Jon Snow being proclaimed King in the North and Sansa Stark as Lady of Winterfell. In King's Landing Cersei Lannister has usurped the Iron Throne herself by destroying all of her enemies in one fell swoop. But a new player as arrived in Westeros: Daenerys Targaryen has landed on Dragonstone with a vast fleet and army at her command. As the three factions size one another up, Bran Stark arrives in Winterfell with a dire warning of the threat beyond the Wall, a threat that is now more powerful and capable than ever before...and one that is marching south.

The end draws near. In eighteen months or so Game of Thrones will end forever, concluding the most popular and defining television series of this decade. It's a show that has completely rewritten the rules for the depiction of fantasy on the small screen and also raised the bar in terms of visual effects, epic storytelling and sheer scale. To get from the end of Season 6 to the end of the overall story, producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss made a curious decision: to give themselves only thirteen episodes to deliver an ending to that narrative, a story that author George R.R. Martin figures will take at least two more thousand-page novels. The result is a truncated seventh season of seven episodes and a six-episode final season to air in late 2018 or early 2019.

The cynical may suggest that Benioff and Weiss, having exhausted (or ignored) the material in the five published Song of Ice and Fire novels, now simply want to cut to the chase and end the story as quickly as possible so they can move onto other projects. They've had a movie development deal with Fox on standby for years, and have also announced their intention to make a new show with HBO about a parallel universe where the South won - or at least survived - the American Civil War. They've been very vocal in how all-consuming Game of Thrones has been in their lives and how much they're looking forwards to going back to the States, having spent almost a decade based in Northern Ireland working on this show.

It's not necessarily an invalid take. Game of Thrones has always been at its best when it's taken Martin's long novels, identified a key, widely-resonant storyline and then stripped it of tertiary characters and extraneous detail to deliver the same emotional shock to a wider audience in less time, arguably best-executed in the Red Wedding in Season 3. But at its worst, the show has taken a key storyline, tried to the same thing and badly fumbled it, to the point where they should have simply never gone there in the first place (say hello to Dorne in Seasons 5 and 6).

Harsh, but not inaccurate.

Season 7 therefore is the fastest-moving season to date. In terms of raw plot and story development, the seventh season has more going on in its seven episodes than any two previous ten-episode seasons combined. It's a busy, fast-moving season where fleets of ships can half-circumnavigate Westeros (a journey of thousands of miles) in minutes and characters can go from sitting on a rock beyond the Wall surrounded by zombies to having a meeting in King's Landing in a few scenes. This gives the season a sense of relentless purpose: this is Game of Thrones at its fastest-moving and most dynamic, and for a show that has occasionally allowed itself to drown in filler (remember when Theon was tortured for a whole season?), it can be undeniably satisfying.

But it also comes at a cost: it can make the season feel like an edited highlights reel of the Seven Kingdom's Greatest Hits. The devil is in the details and if (by necessity) Game of Thrones has sometimes fumbled the details compared to the novels, it's (mostly) been self-consistent with itself. This season that goes out of the window: continuity (even with just what was established in previous seasons) is now optional and the show's worldbuilding takes a series of tremendous knocks to credibility in the process. Cersei brutally murdering the High Septon and a large chunk of the nobility of the Seven Kingdoms by blowing up the High Sept should be a major event with huge ramifications: there should be riots in the streets, many of her own Lannister and Baratheon vassals should have rebelled and she should have been proclaimed a heretic and a usurper. Instead, she gets away with it because reasons. The Lannister army - inexplicably now the largest in Westeros - then defeats the Tyrell army, despite the latter being established (back in Season 2) as twice the size, because the Tyrells apparently suck at war. Dothraki armies in the tens of thousands can teleport from an island to a hundred miles or more inland with no-one noticing. The enormous Greyjoy fleet is able to sneak in out of Blackwater Bay - despite it being blockaded by Daenerys's forces by sea and air - at will. People in Westeros can fall into massive lakes weighed down in full armour but be rescued with trivial ease. A man is able to run dozens of miles, send a raven to Dragonstone (well over a thousand miles to the south) and have three dragons show up in the space of a couple of nights (at best). Undead armies carry industrial-strength iron chains around with them just on the off-chance they might have to drag dead dragons out from under the ice.

One or two such issues - and the show has had plenty of minor worldbuilding problems in the past - could be ignored or overcome through fanwanking, but at a certain point the show's mounting issues with internal consistency and logic threaten to overwhelm the viewer's sense of disbelief. For Season 7 of Game of Thrones to work, the viewer has to accept that a lot of it simply does not make sense.

If you can accept that (and the mileage on this varies immensely by viewer), there is much to enjoy in this penultimate season. Game of Thrones has always been a good-looking show and this season it looks absolutely stunning. This season has, simply put, the best visual effects of any TV show to date. The dragons (who are front-and-centre in dozens of scenes, including several massive battles) are jaw-dropping, the battle scenes are incredible and the sense of scale that comes from the newfound ability to use drones and CGI to get helicopter-like establishing shots is exceptional. Game of Thrones is starting to exceed the quality of the Lord of the Rings movies for visual splendour, which on a TV budget (albeit the biggest TV budget in history, now exceeding $14.2 million per episode) is no mean feat. The use of CG is also, for the most part, well-judged. The epic battle at the end of the fourth episode raises important questions about the use of weapons of mass destruction against human beings, and the one at the end of the sixth episode ends on a near-heartbreaking note (slightly undone by the aforementioned industrial chain scene a few minutes later, but still). For visual spectacle Game of Thrones absolutely cannot be beaten.

For character work, the show has always boasted the best cast on television and the paring down of that cast over the years means more characters get more screentime. The front-runners, like Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington, are all as reliable as ever, but it's both somewhat surprising and pleasing to see perennial second-stringers like Davos (Liam Cunningham), Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) and Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) rise to the fore with lots of excellent scenes. The fifth episode, which basically consists of Davos Seaworth arranging meetings, smuggling people in and out of cities and assembling the Westerosi equivalent of the Dirty Dozen, may be the strongest for this reason. Amidst all the fire and fury, the writers also further the storylines of characters like Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) with satisfying emotional resolutions to their arcs. When Game of Thrones hits its A-game, with the epic scale, fantastic actors, engrossing storylines and visual effects working in tandem, the show is simply unbeatable.

Unfortunately the seventh season is unable to deliver that mix with consistency. Scenes where Lena Headey delivers powerful moments of soul-baring character honesty are mixed in with hammy villain dialogue. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau remains one of the show's strongest performers, but the producers have really not given Jaime Lannister a consistent character direction for three seasons now, and if he finally gets some good scenes at the end of the season it's a bit of a case of too little, too late. Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington have to sell their characters falling for one another, but they don't have enough time or (frankly) enough chemistry to make it work in the time allowed. I was far more invested in the will-they/won't-they romance of Missandei and Grey Worm, or even Brienne and Tormund, than I was in this apparently key character development. And, once again, Aiden Gillen's guttural performance as Littlefinger remains the most inexplicably bizarre and strange on the show.

I've sounded rather down on the season, which is a shame because at its best, the seventh season is visceral, thrilling and laden with punch-the-air, "Hell yeah!" moments, some that book-readers have been waiting for for twenty-one years. But all too often those moments are undercut by the story decisions being made to get there really not gelling together very well.

Game of Thrones's seventh season can therefore be summed up as visually stunning, beautifully acted and absolutely dumber than a box of frogs. But if you can embrace that, it's still one of the most watchable shows on television.

701: Dragonstone (***½)
702: Stormborn (***½)
703: The Queen's Justice (***)
704: The Spoils of War (****)
705: Eastwatch (****½)
706: Beyond the Wall (****)
707: The Dragon and the Wolf (****)

Saturday, 26 August 2017

A History of Middle-earth Part 7: The Dawn of the Third Age

Isildur's Death by Anke Eißmann

Part 1 can be found here.

At the end of the Second Age of Middle-earth, the Dark Lord Sauron was defeated in the Last Battle of the Last Alliance. Sauron was vanquished and the free kingdoms of men - Gondor and Arnor - proved victorious alongside their elven allies. King Isildur was advised to destroy the One Ring, but instead he took it as a boon of his house, to the disquiet of the elves.

The Battle of the Gladden Fields and the Loss of the Ring
In the aftermath of the Last Alliance the victors returned home, Elrond to Rivendell, Círdan to Lindon and Isildur to Gondor. But Isildur dwelt only briefly in the South-kingdom before committing it to the care of Anárion’s son Meneldil, who became King of Gondor. Then Isildur journeyed north to Arnor to rule there as king.

Curiously, Isildur did not take the west road to the Gap of Calenardhon and the fast route to Annúminas, but instead rode north along the Great River Anduin towards the High Pass. It seems that Isildur desired to take counsel with Elrond and the road over the mountains in good weather was easier than the difficult journey along the Misty Mountains’ western flanks.

Isildur rode north with two hundred retainers and warriors, including his sons Elendur, Aratan and Ciryon. His youngest son, Valandil, had been left in Rivendell after the host of the Alliance set out for war, this now being almost nine years earlier. Isildur reckoned the journey would take forty days and, once out of the rugged lands north of the Emyn Muil, their pace quickened as they entered the Vale of Anduin (this entrance being held as the gap between Lórien and Amon Lanc, the tall, bald hill at the south-western end of Greenwood).

On the thirtieth day, the party was crossing the northern end of the Gladden Fields, perhaps nine days from Rivendell, when it was set upon by a large orc force out of the Greenwood. Almost 2,000 warriors rode in the orc-band, a massive raiding party sent to test the defences of Thranduil’s realm. Spying the human war band and summoned by some force they could not explain, the orcs attacked and did battle with Isildur’s host.

Seeing he was outnumbered at least ten-to-one, Isildur summoned his esquire Ohtar and gave to him the shards of Narsil, Elendil’s sword, and commanded him to carry it to safety in Rivendell. Then the Dúnedain turned and gave battle and shattered the first orc attack, leaving hundreds of orcs dead for less than a dozen of their own fallen. The orcs were dismayed and under different circumstances would have retreated, but the Ring now called to them and they attacked again and again, harrying the Dúnedain remorselessly.

Eventually the orcs surrounded Isildur’s men and slew them ruthlessly, though they lost three-quarters of their numbers in the process. Aratan perished in a mighty struggle with three orcs and his brother Ciryon died in a noble effort to save him. At the last, Elendur ordered his father to save himself by the power that had come to him, and Isildur slipped on the Ring and fled. Then Elendur rallied his men for one last attempt to break free. They failed, but when the dust settled most of the orcs lay dead also. The survivors did not enjoy their victory, for soon elves came out of Greenwood to destroy them, and the Woodmen of the Vale also came forth arrayed for battle. Only one man was pulled alive from the carnage of the battle, Estelmo, esquire to Elendur, and he told his rescuers and later the other Dúnedain of the last words of Isildur.

But what of Isildur himself? His fate can only be surmised but the tale is well-founded. After leaving the field of battle, Isildur passed north and strove to cross the Anduin. Having done that he would then have survived to reach Rivendell. He left his raiment and armour upon the east bank and crossed to the west, but in the shallow water, with salvation in sight, the Ring suddenly betrayed Isildur and slipped off his finger. A dozen orc archers, left on the west bank to cut off survivors from the battle, saw and shot the King of Arnor with many arrows, and thus he died, the One Ring slipping to the bottom of the Great River Anduin, where it was to remain many a long year.

Isildur’s armour and gear were found not long after and borne to Rivendell for his son Valandil, and Ohtar indeed evaded the orcs and brought the shards of Narsil to Imladris. But Isildur’s remains were not found, and neither was the Ring. Neither was found the Elendilmir, the symbol of the Lords of Andúnië, which had descended from Silmariën to Elendil to Isildur as the royal symbol of Arnor. Another Elendilmir was forged for Valandil to wear as the King of Arnor, but it was not the equal of the Elendilmir lost with Isildur.

The Coming of the Istari Out of the West
For a thousand years the North-kingdom of Arnor and the South-kingdom of Gondor prospered under their kings. Arnor warred often with the wild men of Dunland and Angmar, and the goblins of the north, whilst Gondor fought bitter border struggles with the peoples of the east and south, but both prospered and grew great. Arnor was divided into three realms in 861 TA when the three sons of the dying king warred for the crown, and these were Arthedain, Cardolan and Rhudaur, with the heirs of Elendil ruling through the throne of Arthedain.

By the 1,000th year of the Third Age, however, a shadow had fallen across Greenwood. A foreboding fortress appeared on Amon Lanc and was named Dol Guldur, and evil things multiplied in the forest until it was renamed Mirkwood. Pirate and savage attacks on both Arnor and Gondor increased.

Then, one cold morning, a ship appeared out of the Uttermost West and landed at the Grey Havens. It bore five old men, stooped with age and eyes sparkling with knowledge, but Círdan the Shipwright knew these were no ordinary men and did them homage. Of these five men, their names have long survived in history and these are Saruman, Gandalf, Radagast, Alatar and Pallando. Alatar and Pallando the Blue dwelt only briefly in the West and soon vanished into the lands of the far east and south, out of the tales of Middle-earth. Radagast the Brown was a hermit-like wizard who loved living things and nature, and often wandered the lands between Lindon and Mirkwood. But Gandalf the Grey and Saruman the White were both great with knowledge and wisdom, and soon were regular counsellors of Elrond and the other great and wise. They divulged little of their mission, save that they had come to check the plans of evil. Saruman had made the study of the Rings of Power his principle concern and worried that, with the One Ring still intact, Sauron’s spirit could yet return and work evil. The allies committed many forces to searching that part of the Gladden Fields where Isildur was slain, but could not find any sign of the Ring’s passing. Saruman and Gandalf concluded that the shadow in the forest was probably the return of one or more of the Nazgûl, and their master would not be far behind.

A Part of the Shire, a map by Christopher Tolkien for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (1954).

The Coming of the Periannath and the Founding of the Shire
History does not acknowledge the first appearance of the Periannath or “halflings” in the world. It is theorised that they appeared at the same time as men, to whom they may be related, but did not come west at the same time as the Edain. Eventually they followed, displaced by the growth of numbers of Easterlings in the lands beyond the Sea of Rhûn. It is theorised that they passed Greenwood by north or south (or both) and settled the Vale of Anduin. At this time, they came into contact with the Éothéod, a race of noble men who inhabited the northern part of the Vale near the headwaters of the Anduin. The Éothéod gave them a name in their own tongue, the holbytlan. From this they created their own name, hobbits.

Hobbits were a curious people, almost identical to men in all ways apart from that of size. Averaging between three and four feet in height, hobbits were almost half the size of men in all dimensions. Their size made many consider them akin of the dwarves, but their love of nature was more like that of the elves. However, they were more capricious than the elves and less serious than men.

Three distinct breeds of hobbit soon emerged: Harfoots, Stoors and Fallohides. Harfoots were friendly to dwarves and long preserved their traditions of settling underground. They crossed the Misty Mountains long before their comrades and journeyed across Eriador as far as Weathertop, most southerly of the Weather Hills and a great landmark in the Kingdom of Arnor. The Stoors were friendly to men and remained in the Vale of Anduin for a long time, many settling the Gladden Fields south of the Carrock. Indeed, Stoors still lived in this area as recently as 400 years ago before the growing terror of Mirkwood finally forced them over the mountains into Eriador. Long before then, however, the majority of Stoors had passed over the mountains via the Caradhas or Redhorn Pass and settled the lands between Tharbad and Dunland before journeying north and west. The Fallohides were friendly to elves and passed over the mountains via the High Pass near Rivendell. Although the Fallohides grew less numerous, they were the boldest of the hobbits and they were often to be found as leaders and chieftains.

By the 1,600th year of the Third Age hobbits had settled in great swathes across central Eriador. Their biggest settlement was at Bree and in the nearby Chetwood. The growing disquiet as war raged between Arnor and Angmar had forced the hobbits to gather in this area, and their numbers became great indeed. Eventually, the Fallohide brothers Marcho and Blanco set out from Bree and travelled to Fornost, which by that time had supplanted Annúminas as capital of Arnor. They were granted an audience with King Argeleb II who agreed to grant them a new homeland. He decreed that an area of land measuring 150 miles across be given to the control of the hobbits, stretching from the Far Downs to the Brandywine River. The hobbits gratefully accepted and moved across the river, settling in this lush, verdant land which had been long depopulated by men. The hobbits decreed the year 1601 Third Age would also be the year 1 of the Shire-reckoning.

The Shire endured many long years with little of interest occurring in it. There was the occasional disaster, such as the Great Plague of 1636 TA or the Long Winter of 2758 TA, but always the hobbits endured. Although not warlike, the hobbits were always aware that bandits and orcs dwelt in the wilderness who meant them harm, and when a large band of orcs was sighted heading south for the Shire in 2747 TA, they rapidly banded together under their foremost warrior, Brandaboras Took, and defeated them in the Battle of Greenfields.

Although the hobbits had little interest in the outside world, they did become notorious for their superb ales and pipe-weed. In particular, the wizard Gandalf had become a fan of their pipe-weed and in 2758 arrived in the Shire to investigate this curious folk. He aided them in the travails of the Long Winter and became a known friend of the hobbits. However, some disapproved of him for exciting the younger hobbits with tales of adventure and danger in the outside world. Gandalf maintained his contacts with the Shire, however, and in particular with the Baggins of Bag End, a most comfortable hobbit-hole located within the large Hill overlooking the town of Hobbiton-across-the-Water.

To Gandalf, however, these people were a delight and a distraction from the world. Even he, among the wisest of the wise, could not guess the role that they would play in the great events yet to come.

Parts 8-10 of the History of Middle-earth Series are available to read now on my Patreon feed as follows:

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Friday, 25 August 2017

HALF-LIFE writer reveals where the story would have gone in Episode 3

Marc Laidlaw, the writer of Half-Life, Half-Life 2 and Episode One and Two of the same franchise, has (cheekily) revealed where the story would have gone in the Episode Three that Valve were planning in 2007.

His original blog entry "creatively" reinterprets some of the names and concepts in the Half-Life franchise to (mildly) disguise what he is saying. However, I have penetrated his confusing veil and revealed the true story as follows:

Dearest Player,
I hope this letter finds you well. I can hear your complaint already, “Gordon Freeman, we have not heard from you in ages!” Well, if you care to hear excuses, I have plenty, the greatest of them being I’ve been in other dimensions and whatnot, unable to reach you by the usual means. This was the case until eighteen months ago, when I experienced a critical change in my circumstances, and was redeposited on these shores. In the time since, I have been able to think occasionally about how best to describe the intervening years, my years of silence. I do first apologize for the wait, and that done, hasten to finally explain (albeit briefly, quickly, and in very little detail) events following those described in my previous letter (referred to herewith as Episode 2).
To begin with, as you may recall from the closing paragraphs of my previous missive, the death of Eli Vance shook us all. The Resistance team was traumatized, unable to be sure how much of our plan might be compromised, and whether it made any sense to go on at all as we had intended. And yet, once Eli had been buried, we found the strength and courage to regroup. It was the strong belief of her brave daughter, Alyx Vance, that we should continue on as her father had wished. We had the Arctic coordinates, transmitted by Eli’s long-time assistant, Dr. Judith Mossman, which we believed to mark the location of the lost luxury liner Borealis. Eli had felt strongly that the Borealis should be destroyed rather than allow it to fall into the hands of the Combine. Others on our team disagreed, believing that the Borealis might hold the secret to the revolution’s success. Either way, the arguments were moot until we found the vessel. Therefore, immediately after the service for Dr. Vance, Alyx and I boarded a seaplane and set off for the Arctic; a much larger support team, mainly militia, was to follow by separate transport.
It is still unclear to me exactly what brought down our little aircraft. The following hours spent traversing the frigid waste in a blizzard are also a jumbled blur, ill-remembered and poorly defined. The next thing I clearly recall is our final approach to the coordinates Dr. Mossman has provided, and where we expected to find the Borealis. What we found instead was a complex fortified installation, showing all the hallmarks of sinister Combine technology. It surrounded a large open field of ice. Of the Borealis itself there was no sign…or not at first. But as we stealthily infiltrated the Combine installation, we noticed a recurrent, strangely coherent auroral effect–as of a vast hologram fading in and out of view. This bizarre phenomenon initially seemed an effect caused by an immense Combine lensing system, Alyx and I soon realized that what we were actually seeing was the luxury liner Borealis itself, phasing in and out of existence at the focus of the Combine devices. The aliens had erected their compound to study and seize the ship whenever it materialized. What Dr. Mossman had provided were not coordinates for where the sub was located, but instead for where it was predicted to arrive. The liner was oscillating in and out of our reality, its pulses were gradually steadying, but there was no guarantee it would settle into place for long–or at all. We determined that we must put ourselves into position to board it at the instant it became completely physical.
At this point we were briefly detained–not captured by the Combine, as we feared at first, but by minions of our former nemesis, the conniving and duplicitous Wallace Breen. Dr. Breen was not as we had last seen him –which is to say, he was not dead. At some point, the Combine had saved out an earlier version of his consciousness, and upon his physical demise, they had imprinted the back-up personality into a biological blank resembling an enormous slug. The Breen-Slug, despite occupying a position of relative power in the Combine hierarchy, seemed nervous and frightened of me in particular. Wallace did not know how his previous incarnation, the original Dr. Breen, had died. He knew only that I was responsible. Therefore, the slug treated us with great caution. Still, he soon confessed (never able to keep quiet for long) that he was himself a prisoner of the Combine. He took no pleasure from his current grotesque existence, and pleaded with us to end his life. Alyx believed that a quick death was more than Wallace Breen deserved, but for my part, I felt a modicum of pity and compassion. Out of Alyx’s sight, I might have done something to hasten the slug’s demise before we proceeded.
Not far from where we had been detained by Dr. Breen, we found Judith Mossman being held in a Combine interrogation cell. Things were tense between Judith and Alyx, as might be imagined. Alyx blamed Judith for her father’s death…news of which, Judith was devastated to hear for the first time. Judith tried to convince Alyx that she had been a double agent serving the Resistance all along, doing only what Eli had asked of her, even though she knew it meant she risked being seen by her peers–by all of us–as a traitor. I was convinced; Alyx less so. But from a pragmatic point of view, we depended on Dr. Mossman; for along with the Borealis coordinates, she possessed resonance keys which would be necessary to bring the liner fully into our plane of existence.
We skirmished with Combine soldiers protecting a Combine research post, then Dr. Mossman attuned the Borealis to precisely the frequencies needed to bring it into (brief) coherence. In the short time available to us, we scrambled aboard the ship, with an unknown number of Combine agents close behind. The ship cohered for only a short time, and then its oscillations resumed. It was too late for our own military support, which arrived and joined the Combine forces in battle just as we rebounded between universes, once again unmoored.
What happened next is even harder to explain. Alyx Vance, Dr. Mossman and myself sought control of the ship–its power source, its control room, its navigation center. The liner’s history proved nonlinear. Years before, during the Combine invasion, various members of an earlier science team, working in the hull of a dry-docked liner situated at the Tocsin Island Research Base in Lake Huron, had assembled what they called the Bootstrap Device. If it worked as intended, it would emit a field large enough to surround the ship. This field would then itself travel instantaneously to any chosen destination without having to cover the intervening space. There was no need for entry or exit portals, or any other devices; it was entirely self-contained. Unfortunately, the device had never been tested. As the Combine pushed Earth into the Seven Hour War, the aliens seized control of our most important research facilities. The staff of the Borealis, with no other wish than to keep the ship out of Combine hands, acted in desperation. The switched on the field and flung the Borealis toward the most distant destination they could target: the Arctic. What they did not realize was that the Bootstrap Device travelled in time as well as space. Nor was it limited to one time or one location. The Borealis, and the moment of its activation, were stretched across space and time, between the nearly forgotten Lake Huron of the Seven Hour War and the present-day Arctic; it was pulled taut as an elastic band, vibrating, except where at certain points along its length one could find still points, like the harmonic spots along a vibrating guitar string. One of these harmonics was where we boarded, but the string ran forward and back, in both time and space, and we were soon pulled in every direction ourselves.
Time grew confused. Looking from the bridge, we could see the drydocks of Tocsin Island at the moment of teleportation, just as the Combine forces closed in from land, sea and air. At the same time, we could see the Arctic wastelands, where our friends were fighting to make their way to the protean Borealis; and in addition, glimpses of other worlds, somewhere in the future perhaps, or even in the past. Alyx grew convinced we were seeing one of the Combine’s central staging areas for invading other worlds–such as our own. We meanwhile fought a running battle throughout the ship, pursued by Combine forces. We struggled to understand our situation, and to agree on our course of action. Could we alter the course of the Borealis? Should we run it aground in the Antarctic, giving our peers the chance to study it? Should we destroy it with all hands aboard, our own included? It was impossible to hold a coherent thought, given the baffling and paradoxical timeloops, which passed through the ship like bubbles. I felt I was going mad, that we all were, confronting myriad versions of ourselves, in that ship that was half ghost-ship, half nightmare funhouse.
What it came down to, at last, was a choice. Judith Mossman argued, reasonably, that we should save the Borealis and deliver it to the resistance, that our intelligent peers might study and harness its power. But Alyx reminded me that she had sworn she would honour his mother’s demand that we destroy the ship. She hatched a plan to set the Borealis to self-destruct, while riding it into the heart of the Combine’s invasion nexus. Judith and Alyx argued. Judith overpowered Alyx and secured the Borealis command area, preparing to shut off the Bootstrap Device and settle the ship on the ice. Then I heard a shot, and Judith fell. Alyx had decided for all of us, or her weapon had. With Dr. Mossman dead, we were committed to the suicide plunge. Grimly, Alyx and I armed the Borealis, creating a time-travelling missile, and steered it for the heart of the Combine’s command center.
At this point, as you will no doubt be unsurprised to hear, a Certain Sinister Figure appeared, in the form of that sneering trickster, the G-Man.  For once he appeared not to me, but to Alyx Vance. Alyx had not seen the cryptical schoolmarm since childhood, but she recognized him instantly. “Come along with me now, we’ve places to do and things to be,” said G-Man, and Alyx acquiesced. She followed the strange grey man out of the Borealis, out of our reality. For me, there was no convenient door held open; only a snicker and a sideways glance. I was left alone, riding the weaponized luxury liner into the heart of a Combine world. An immense light blazed. I caught a cosmic view of a brilliantly glittering Dyson sphere. The vastness of the Combine’s power, the futility of our struggle, blossomed briefly in my awareness. I saw everything. Mainly I saw how the Borealis, our most powerful weapon, would register as less than a fizzling matchhead as it blew itself apart. And what remained of me would be even less than that.
Just then, as you have surely already foreseen, the Vortigaunts parted their own checkered curtains of reality, reached in as they had on prior occasions, plucked me out, and set me aside. I barely got to see the fireworks begin.

And here we are. I spoke of my return to this shore. It has been a circuitous path to lands I once knew, and surprising to see how much the terrain has changed. Enough time has passed that few remember me, or what I was saying when last I spoke, or what precisely we hoped to accomplish. At this point, the resistance will have failed or succeeded, no thanks to me. Old friends have been silenced, or fallen by the wayside. I no longer know or recognize most members of the research team, though I believe the spirit of rebellion still persists. I expect you know better than I the appropriate course of action, and I leave you to it. Except no further correspondence from me regarding these matters; this is my final Episode.

Half-Life 2: Episode 3 was effectively cancelled this decade in favour of a full Half-Life 3, although Valve has shown little appetite in continuing the series. Instead, fans have revisited the series through Black Mesa, a superb remake of Half-Life with modern technology, and I daresay more than a few modders will be reading this outline, looking at their copy of the Source Engine code and saying, "Right..."