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R.I.P. HANI FEARON

Yesterday, 25/04/2020, Geek Pride lost one of it’s Editors, to Cancer.

Her name was Hani Fearon and she was only 30.

Hani was one of the original group who helped start Geek Pride and despite the tumult inherent in sites like ours, she was always there, always helping, always positive and every time I saw her.. always smiling. In fact, thinking about what I could say about her last night , I closed my eyes and the first image to enter my head was her smile.

It wasn’t toothy and wide, like some, more a warm, gentle, and affirmative one, framed wonderfully by her wide and beautiful bright eyes. Both bathed you in a welcoming warmth that couldn’t help but make you smile in turn when you saw her.

I have a lot of fond memories of Hani; her starting Geek Pride, the life bar tattoo on her wrist, her wonderful cakes and crafts, our first time meeting at Wales Comic Con, our charity events, and her round-ups of the Oscars and E3. But for some reason, and I don’t know why, my favourite one was a time she randomly appeared at Play Expo.

I was running around like a blue arse fly trying to sort things for our booth and was feeling slightly stressed. Hani, I had no idea was going to be there, but suddenly, in my tiz, I got a tap on the shoulder and there she was. Smiling, slightly shy, and waving. We spoke briefly, I gave her a big hug and said it was great to see her. We talked briefly and then she smiled, waved again, and went off to play some games.

It was a brief moment, a brief exchange but it was honestly great seeing her. I was stressed and in that moment her warm smile and shy demeanour made it all go a way and gave me clarity. I remember going back to the booth and telling them “I just saw Hani.” Only to realise that the reason I was off in the first place had been completely forgotten… I don’t even remember what I was stressing about now, just that I saw Hani.

She was a wonderful person and I, and everyone in Geek Pride who had the honour of meeting her, will miss her deeply. We lost one of the good people, too soon, but in our short time as friends, she was able to enrich my life and will have no doubt done the same to countless others of friends and family.

Thank you for everything Hani, thank you for you time, your passion, your reassuring smile. I’m lucky to have called you a friend and I will cherish the memory of you and your smile until my dying day.

HorrorCon 2024

HorrorCon is one of the UK’s largest conventions celebrating horror.  Held every year near Sheffield, it has become a regular event for fans of horror and things that go bump in the night.

The event is held in the industrial-gothic edifice of the Magna science museum.  The choice of venues is inspired, as the colossal former steelworks makes for a wonderfully atmospheric location.

Those claiming that horror is dying have not been to HorrorCon , as the event was filled with fans of all ages. It was so busy that – on the Saturday – cars were being turned away from the car park.  Fortunately, the surrounding roads were quiet, on-street parking was free and the weather was distinctly pleasant, which made the short walk no hardship.

This year’s special guests featured icons from the world of horror, including David Morrisey, Britt Eckland, Griffin Dunne, Mira Sorvino and Kane Hodder.  There seemed to be a nostalgic slant to the selection of guests, as the focus seemed to be on what was, rather than what is.

A late addition to HorrorCon was Mira Sorvino, the star of Mimic and Replacement Killers, but her presence was not widely publicised.  It was especially disappointing that Sorvino was not interviewed on the stage.

Much of HorrorCon took place in the main hall, which was dedicated to guest signings and trader stalls.  Rooms in Magna were also set aside for guest interviews and as a theatre for screening short horror films.

The interviews were very good overall and hosted by an interviewer who asked some excellent questions and clearly knew his subjects well.  However, the interviews felt too short, with the guests having to rush off at the end.

There were a lot of traders; so many that they were spread into the surrounding corridors and smaller rooms, which meant some traders were only found after exploring the event.  There was also a lot of variety of what was on offer, from taxidermy to tattooists, as well as RPGs, authors and artists.  A greater presence from horror authors, plus interviews with them about writing horror fiction, would have added a lot to the event.

HorrorCon took over Magna, but navigating the building felt like exploring a maze.  There were signposts indicating where everything was, but it could be quite easy to miss where things were happening.  There were maps in the event programmes, but they were not effectively distributed.

As the afterparty at the Showcase cinema in Sheffield was on the Saturday night, and the guest interviews were same on both days, returning on Sunday did not feel necessary.  It is probably for this reason that Sunday was much quieter.  The only other variation between the two days was the screenings, which included a special screening of the documentary Children of the Wickerman on the Saturday and a Q&A with Cult Screenings (makers of the RoboDoc documentary) on the Sunday.

Everyone, from attendees to traders, was incredibly friendly.  There was a genuine sense of coming together to celebrate a shared passion.  However, there was little in the way of a communal gathering space.  The food hall soon filled up and had long queues.  The bar was in the main hall next to the traders, which only added to the crowding.  Thankfully, due to the glorious weather that weekend, attendees migrated outside to get away from the crowds.

Overall; HorrorCon was a fun day out.  With greater consideration and focusing on more than just film and television, it could have been excellent and offer a satisfyingly rounded event that celebrated all aspects of horror.

Sci-Fi Weekender is levelling up

Whilst many are still recovering after Sci-Fi Weekender (SFW) last month (reviewed here), plans are already being made for next year’s SFW.

Unlike other conventions, SFW is more akin to a festival, where people descend on a caravan park in Great Yarmouth for a weekend-long celebration of science-fiction, fantasy and horror.  The days are filled with a variety of interviews, panels and gaming, whilst the evenings are filled with live music.  John Robertson, of the Dark Room, once described SFW as “Space Butlins”, whilst others simply refer to it as “Geek Camp.”

Headlining next year’s event will be actor Paul McGann.  Most famous for playing the 8th Doctor in Doctor Who, McGann has also starred in Withnail and I and Alien 3.  Joining him will be variety of actors, including Daphne Ashbrook, who played the 8th Doctor’s companion, as well as appearing in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and other shows.

Cosplaying will be coming to the fore once again at SFW, with the cosplayers Tabitha Lyons and Samii Jinx.  They will be presenting a series of talks and panels, as well as hosting cosplay workshops and live demonstrations.

It is never SFW without live music and 2025 will feature Sci-Fi band.  Paying tribute to Star Wars, the SciFi band have a huge repertoire of songs, and an eclectic mix of musical styles that has seen them appearing at Star Wars events and exclusive parties worldwide.

John Robertson will also be returning with his award-winning live-action videogame The Dark Room, which is best described as a combination of comedy and retro gaming compered by a gloriously deranged heavy metal host.

Another first for SFW will be Life Sized DnD.  Combining atmospheric scenery, exciting stories and engaging soundscape, players explore a life-size dungeon in order to experience what it be like to actually be in a D&D Game.  It is like LARP, but with giant dice.

The SFW Awards ceremony will take place on the Thursday.  There will also be the authors, cosplay competition, retro gaming, board gaming and the usual glorious insanity that can only be found at SFW.

2025’s Sci-Fi Weekender will be held on 20th-23rd March, and tickets are selling fast for what promises to be an amazing geek fest.

Neil Marshall interview

“My mum and my sisters are very strong women, and I have grown up with that.  It doesn’t have to be about women being stronger than the men, but certainly just as strong and as capable.”

Thus filmmaker Neil Marshall explains the inclusion of capable women in all his films.  He continues the tradition of the characters of Ellen Ripley in Alien and Sarah Conner in The Terminator, which were clear influences on Marshall during his formative years

Neil Marshall is one of those few people who does almost everything in the world of film.  He has written, directed, edited and produced.  He is best known for creating Dog Soldiers, The Descent, Doomsday and Centurion, Marshall has also directed episodes of Game of Thrones, Lost in Space and Constantine.

At the recent Sci-Fi Weekender (reviewed here), after a live-showing of Doomsday and Q&A, Neil Marshall sat down with Peter Ray Allison to discuss how he first became a filmmaker and why CGI will never completely supersede practical-effects.

What’s was it like growing up in the North East and wanting to be a director?

It seemed impossible. I mean, I’d got into movies as much as anybody. I liked watching movies and going to the cinema.  I saw Star Wars when I was seven at the Odeon in Newcastle, and that really turned into going to the cinema and seeing movies there.  At that particular time, in the late 70s with Star Wars, A Bridge Too Far and all these films I got to see, I fell in love with going into the cinema.  Then, Raiders of the Lost Ark came along.

It was seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark and watching The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark on television, that made the connection, but it was a dream. I’d started making these movies with my mates and London seemed a long way off, let alone frickin’ Hollywood.

There was a small TV industry in the Northeast at the time, so it was increments.  It wasn’t like, I suddenly thought I’m going to be a Hollywood film director.  I just wanted to make anything at that point. It was little things, a little TV drama here, a little something for Tyne Tees, and that led to seeing other people around that time who were making first features, or trying to do it on shoestring budgets.  I was inspired by watching other directors having entered the industry by doing a low budget horror film first – like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. They were all making their mark in the industry, but they’d started on tiny budget horror movies.  That gave me inspiration, and it was like following that path.

Was there a small community of filmmakers in the northeast?

There was a little bunch of us who came out of film school around the same time. And they’re all friends of mine.  Bharat Nalluri and Richard Jones came to my degree show screening and saw the comedy-zombie movie that I’d made as my graduation film.  They offered me my first job off the back of that; editing some stuff for them.  They were dreaming of making their own first feature, and from my point of view, they were way ahead of me.

They were offering the editing work and storyboarding work and ultimately asked me and two other college graduates.  The three of us wrote this feature film that they were going to make, which became Killing Time.  Everybody who was in that little group in the region all mucked in and did this for nothing, just to do a feature.

Did it become a showcase for everyone’s talents?

It was, in a way.  I edited, co-wrote and storyboarded it.  I also did the action coordinating and directed part of it, because Bharat passed out through exhaustion, so I had to step in.

Everything that could go wrong on a film set went wrong.  Nobody got killed, but people were injured and people got assaulted.  We’re working at three o’clock in the morning and send out these young girls who are our runners to get pizza for the crew.  They were mugged.  Those were rough times.  A riot broke out in one of our locations and we had to evacuate the set while the police arrived, because all these local kids showed up and tried to nick our gear.  We stopped them, but they started throwing rocks at us and we had to get out of there.  Our armourer had his car broken into, but the only thing they stole was the radio.  But because he was the armourer, and his car got broken into, there was a special number that he calls.  I’ve never seen so many police in my life; we had helicopters and everything.  But we got the film made, by hook or by crook.

I thought we could do this better, where people get paid.  That was the beginning of Dog Soldiers.  Little did I know it was going to take another six years to get it made, but that was the origins of making it.

There is something uniquely British about Dog Soldiers, even down to the marketing campaign.

That was my idea, which I pitched to Pathé.  For the past ten years at the cinema, they had these adverts for Territorial Army and I pitched doing teaser trailers for Dog Soldiers using that same format.  They came up with the which one’s gonna break first and they only played in the UK, but they were fun to do.

Pathé then had this awesome other trailer when it got awards recognition.  When we had some good reviews, they put them in the trailer.  We still had voiceover man in those days, which was fun.

I just wanted to make a British movie with British humour and British characters.

One thing Dog Soldiers does very well is portray squaddies accurately.

I find not many films reflect squaddies accurately.  One of the things I wanted to is make a squaddie film for the squaddies.  If anybody else likes it fine, but as long as the squaddies like it, I’ll be proud. I want to make them happy because they get depicted like shit on film.

28 Days Later is a great movie, but its portrayal of the squaddies is fucking awful.  After only 28 days, they’ve become psychotic rapists. I don’t buy that for a second.  I wanted to do something right by the troops.  My dad and my granddad were in the army, and had I not been in the film business I might well have ended up in the army as well – it was a family thing.  I never met my grandad, as he died before I was born, but my dad always regaled me with his stories of the military and the humour.

Hadrian’s Wall crops up a lot in your films.

The wall thing became a bit of a trilogy, because of Doomsday which featured the wall, as well as Centurion, and then I did an episode of Game of Thrones that had the wall in as well.  Having grown up in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, and knowing it so well, it just subconsciously came through.  The Romans built a big wall because something was up there that scared them and that just fired my imagination.  Obviously, we’re doing it a little bit different.  With Centurion, it was all about what was up there that scared the Romans so much.

Somebody told me in a pub one day about the 19th legion; how it marched into the mists of Scotland and vanished without a trace.  I had to make a film of that. I also wanted to make analogy of what was going on in Afghanistan and Iraq at the time, and about invading armies, but flip the story and tell a story from the invading point of view for once and had the villains be sympathetic.  It played off the Picts as being the savages.  When you hear Olga Kurylenko’s character; she’s a killer.  But when you hear her story, you don’t blame her.  I don’t blame her for that.

That’s always what makes stories interesting when there’s a lot of grey areas, in war particularly.  We’re so used to World War Two, where everything was very black and white.  There’s not so many grey areas there.  In a lot of other wars, there are freedom fighters, but when does a freedom fighter become a terrorist?  I was seeing what was happening overseas with the army, but this has been going on since time immemorial.

Did the creators bring you into Constantine because of being from where the character was born?

I pointed out I was from Newcastle, but we ended up shooting it over here.  Trying to capture Newcastle in Atlanta was not easy.  Part of the problem with that one was is that it was a network TV show and the character is not a network TV character.  Constantine smokes, drinks and swears, but we had to get rid of all of that.  We were hamstrung, trying to do, with our hands tied behind our back, a really cool version of the character that can’t drink, swear or smoke.

Constantine is a character defined by his flaws; of drinking, swearing and smoking.

It all comes into his story.  He gets cancer and he does pay for his actions, but we couldn’t do anything.  We asked if he could exhale a cigarette or be seen with a cigarette in his hand?  Nothing.  I always felt that as much as we did the best we could, and that Matt Ryan was a great version of the character, other networks basically stole the character and put them in Legends of Tomorrow and stuff like that instead, where he could be a bit more like the Constantine that we know and love.

Constantine should have been a streaming show, where we could have had all the drinking or smoking or swearing constantly.

You have talked in the past about a zombie movie on an oil rig – I would love to see that.

That was the feature version of my student film.  It was called Outpost and I wrote the script.  When I was asked after Dog Soldiers, just what else I had to make, I presented that script to sell it to Orion Films, who were wanting to make a movie with me.  They read it and absolutely loved it, but it was too expensive.  We sat down together and came up with The Descent.

You write, direct, edit and produce films, but how would you describe yourself?

Just a filmmaker.  I don’t know that I would I call myself an auteur.  As I’m not sure that I ever really believe in them, because I can’t do it without the production designer or the DOP.  I think that auteur thing is a little bit tricky, but a filmmaker for sure.

You are now based in the UK, but what are you working on?

Back in 2022, I shot a female-led gangster movie.  It’s like Scarface and that’s coming out this summer in cinemas.  Last year, I shot a slasher movie, which we shot out in Malta and I’m only just finishing that now.  I’ve just finished writing a World War Two alien invasion film.  Everybody starts thinking of Saving Private Ryan meets Independence Day, but it’s not that at all.  It’s set in a Cornish fishing village in 1940, when England is expecting to be invaded by Germany, but they get invaded by something else.

That sounds like a subversion of the stereotypical of films set in that time.

I was interested in doing a very Spielbergian family film.  I’ve had to rein in the violence, but I still want it to be scary.  I wanted to go for Jurassic Park levels of intensity.  Scares can still be scary.  Kids love being scared, it’s just not being offensive or going too far with the blood.  You can still push the envelope a little bit and make it scary for them, for sure.

This has got aliens and various sequences.  It’s about a bunch of kids who get evacuated from London to this village.  All the men of fighting age are off during the war and what’s left in the village are the kids, the old home guard and the land girls and it’s them who have to fight off the aliens.  It’s like Empire of the Sun meets Goonies meets Aliens.

Will you be using practical effects or use CGI?

I prefer practical on so many levels.  It’s better for the actors and it looks better on camera.  You can hack stuff with CGI, but at the end of the day if you want to create a classic monster, then do it practically.  When I think of the classic monsters, they are pretty much all practical.  From the original Frankenstein‘s monster to The Howling and America Werewolf in London to The Thing and the original Predator.  They still look amazing because they were real.  I very much believe in that.

Neil Marshall, thank you very much.

All photos are by Peter Gatehouse and are used with permission.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Legends of the Zone Trilogy

The original S.T.A.L.K.E.R. trilogy (Shadow of Chernobyl, Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat) is renowned for its incredible atmosphere and punishing difficulty.  Originally released over fifteen years ago, for the PC, they follow the adventures of a series of Stalkers as they uncover the secrets of the exclusion zone around Chornobyl.  The games have now been adapted for consoles (Xbox and PlayStation) with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Legends of the Zone.

In the storyline for these games, secret soviet experiments in the Chornobyl exclusion zone created a second explosion, which altered the environment in the zone.  Localised anomalies that defied the laws of physics appeared and mutant creatures roamed the area, but of particular interest were bizarre artifacts that offered their bearer unique abilities.

Shadow of Chernobyl, the original game, followed the ‘marked one’ as they attempted to uncover the secrets of the zone.  Clear Sky acted as a prequel to the first game, setting much of the storyline for the original.  Meanwhile, Call of Pripyat is a sequel to the original and explores the consequences of the events.

The S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Legends of the Zone trilogy is a direct adaptation of the original games.  The core difference is that they have been optimised for games controllers, rather than continuing to rely on only keyboard and mouse controls.  In this, they work very well.  The controls feel intuitive and the gear switching system – activated by holding down the left shoulder button on the control – is quick and simple.

Another difference is that the language has been changed to Ukrainian rather than the original Russian.  This most noticeable with the title of the original, which switched to the Ukrainian spelling of Choronobyl.  Other than this, the games effectively look and play the same.

The developers make a point of highlighting that these games should be viewed as cultural artifacts restored for modern games consoles, rather than as remakes.  It is acknowledged that some of the content and language may not be as politically acceptable now as it once was.

The setting is incredibly immersive and atmospheric, and wonderfully evokes the feeling of exploring a desolate wilderness.  Despite the games being over a decade old, they still look incredible.  It is only when the textures are looked at in detail do the games show their age.

The games are also punishingly difficult.  They have a realistic combat system, so charging in with only a semi-automatic pistol will result in a ‘game over’ screen.  This is a game that demands players take a cautious approach to combat.  In fact, the entire environment is hostile to the player; from roving bandits and heavily armed mercenaries, to mutant animals and bizarre anomalies.

There are multiple factions within the games that need to negotiated with.  It is up to the player to determine which faction they will align themselves with.  The player’s interactions with each faction will also influence how they operate within the game.

It should be noted that there is no autosave function and it is incumbent upon players to regularly save their progress – and with a game as difficult as these – it should very regular.  Also, game mechanics of restoring health after a few minutes out of combat was not a thing when these games were released.

Overall, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Legends of the Zone trilogy are a wonderful collection of games and would be ideal for anyone who enjoys playing open-world survival horror, or who just wants to explore the exclusion zone.

SFW-XV: A glorious celebration of wonder

For over a decade, Sci-Fi Weekender (SFW) has been one of the UK’s top science-fiction, fantasy and horror festivals.  In that time there have been multiple venue changes and a global pandemic.  Yet it not only endures, but continues to improve its format and experiment with new entertainments each year.

The special guests generate a lot of interest for such an event, and this year’s SFW was headlined by the actor Peter Davison (The fifth Doctor in Doctor Who) and filmmaker Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent, Centurion, etc.).  Also present among the guests were the actors Leigh Gill and Michael Troughton, as well as the author Sarah Pinborough.  All of the guests were friendly and happy to chat with fans.  And this is where SFW differs from other events.  Guests are chosen not so much for their fame or prestige, as for their friendliness and willingness to join in the fun.

The preliminaries for this year’s SFW began on the Thursday evening with the steampunk-themed SFW Awards, which acted as a recognition of the guests’ accomplishments and an informal introduction to the coming weekend.  Throughout the ceremony, the Antipoet provided a series of punk-infused performances of beat poetry with a double-bass, before Levelup Leroy played a storming set.  Unfortunately, the tables meant that there was not as much dancing as there could have been, but that didn’t stop some people.  The steampunk theme continued throughout much of this year’s SFW, with lots of people dressed in their finest Victoriana.

The days of SFW are filled with panels and talks by the guests.  Peter Davison’s interview was especially popular.  Something new this year was a screening of Doomsday, Neil Marshall’s sci-fi action film, followed by a Q&A session with the director himself.  The lack of a live commentary during the film felt like a missed opportunity, but that would have meant Marshall talking for nearly three hours straight…

There were also author readings by GN Gudgion, RS Moule, Graham Smith and many others, whilst the author Bryony Pearce hosted an excellent writing workshop about creating sci-fi worlds.  The comic-strip club returned, with artists like Clint Langley, Graham Humphreys and Neil Fraser, with the latter two giving a talk about their work.

SFW remains a family-friendly event, with several attendees bringing their children.  One fun day-time event in particular was Madam Misfit’s British Aeronautical Piloting School (B.A.P.S.), which was a bit of fun for families (and big kids) wanting to learn how to fly. 

Tabletop gaming also made a welcome return to SFW, with a board games sessions on the Friday and Saturday afternoons.  The gatherings were filled each day, with some games continuing into the evening.  In many ways, this highlights the community spirit of SFW.

A significant change for this year’s SFW was the space port becoming a cinema for the evening.  Family friendly films were shown first, followed by adult movies (not that kind) later in the evening.  The film room became somewhere to chill out, where attendees could relax and watch classic films like Star Wars and Galaxy Quest.  A consequence of losing what was the secondary stage is that the live entertainment was only held in the main void.

The evening performances were excellent overall, but some did not work as well as others.  That said, the fact that the organisers are willing to experiment with new acts demonstrates their desire to continually improve SFW.  There were also occasional technical issues, but these were quickly resolved by the stage team.

The stand-out act for this years’ SFW had to be the gloriously infectious Victor and the Bully; glam punk pirate metal with a distinctly mariachi feel, which was as infectiously crazy as it sounds.  Steampunk electro-swing chaphop artist Madam Misfit returned to headline Saturday evening, with a set filled with passion and energy, as well as some new songs.  LevelUp Leroy also delivered a lavish set of tunes to continue the revelry late into the night.  Unfortunately, Graham Graham Beck and Experimental Sonic Machines did not work so well.  Their music was well performed, but their slower-paced quirkiness felt out of place on the main stage.

There were also some fantastic comedy sets throughout the weekend.  George Coppen is an excellent raconteur of his bizarre encounters, whilst Lost Voice Guy gave incredibly dark but funny tales of his life.  Unfortunately, the improvised Star Wars show It’s a Trap just did not work due to limited audience interaction and sound issues throughout the set.

Pop-up puppet cinema (Punch and Judy style recreations of films) was on fine form.  The premiere of their version of The Shining, a very knowing meta-referential version of the classic film, was brilliantly done and had some excellent sound design.

From the SFW Awards until the final crescendo on Saturday night, Area 51 continued to provide fantastic performances throughout the event.  Their performances were new routines that incorporated LED technologies for a cyberpunk infused display of dance and light.  The stilt walkers and dancers weaving their way through the crowds over the weekend conjured an atmosphere of fantasy and wonder, which encouraged attendees to dress up and engage with others.

It is impossible to see everything, as there are often multiple performances and talks happening at the same time.  SFW is, more than anything else, a geek festival on a holiday park; it is jokingly called ‘Space Butlins’ for a reason.  There is a wonderful atmosphere and everyone is friendly, with lots of impromptu gatherings, such as Pirate Pete’s Portable Party.

The venue was excellent overall and it was great to see staff getting into the atmosphere of the event, but food and bar prices were expensive.  The intermission between performances was delightfully filled with lots of nineties rock – you have not lived until you have danced to Nirvana’s Smells Like a Teen Spirit alongside Geralt and Yennefer from The Witcher.

The accommodation was warm and comfortable, with the static caravans located only a few minutes’ walk away from the halls.  This meant that attendees were far enough away to not be disturbed, but close enough that they could still nip back whenever they desired.  The pool was also open this year, which was great for those with families or anyone who just wanted a soak after the previous night’s festivities.

Overall, this year’s Sci-Fi Weekender was a glorious celebration of science-fiction, fantasy and horror, with great guests and amazing performances.  More than anything else, it proved why so many people return each year to SFW.  With some very special guests already booked for next year’s SFW, I can hardly wait.

All photos are by Peter Gatehouse and are used with permission.

Full disclosure: the author was a panel host.

Sci-Fi Weekender XV

The annual geek camp festival Sci-Fi Weekender (SFW), sometimes referred to as ‘Space Butlins’, will be celebrating its fifteenth anniversary next month.

SFW wouldn’t be SFW without The Doctor, and this year Peter Davison will be attending on the Friday.  First appearing in the TV series The Tomorrow People, Davison rose to fame as Tristram in All Creatures Great and Small.  Davison later cemented his legacy when he replaced Tom Baker as The Doctor in Doctor Who.

A first for Sci-Fi Weekender will be the acclaimed horror and science fiction director and screenwriter Neil Marshall.  His debut film Dog Soldiers was a critical success and he quickly followed up with The Descent, Doomsday and many other films.  He also moved into television to direct episodes of Westworld, Constantine and two episodes of Game of Thrones (Blackwater and The Watchers on the Wall).

Mark Ryan will be another special guest. He portrayed pirate quartermaster Mr Gates in Black Sails and Nasir in Robin of Sherwood, and provided the voices of Bumblebee and Lockdown in the Transformers films.  Prior to his acting career, Ryan was an operative for British Military Intelligence.

Others actors appearing include Michael Troughton, son of the late Patrick Troughton (the second Doctor), who has worked on numerous iterations of Doctor Who, and Leigh Gill, who played Gary in Joker and starred as Bobono in Game of Thrones.

There will also be an abundance of authors at SFW, including the internationally bestselling author Peter V Brett of the Demon Cycle series.  Brett will be appearing on Saturday as part of his UK tour promoting his latest novel, The Hidden Queen. Brett’s novels include The Warded Man, The Desert Spear and The Daylight War.

Darren Shan will be making a welcome return.  Darren’s first book, Cirque du Freak, published in 2000, was followed by The Saga of Darren Shan series, which became a global phenomenon. Shan followed up his vampiric saga with The Demonata and The Saga of Larten Crepsley.

New York Times bestselling and Sunday Times number one author Sarah Pinborough joins SFW for the event.  Having published more than 25 novels across multiple genres, her recent books include Behind Her Eyes, Dead To Her and The Death House.

SFW’s ‘strip club’ promises some fantastic artists this year.  Theartist Clint Langley is best known for his work on 2000 AD, especially Slaine and ABC Warriors.  Langley was also the cover artist for Guardians of the Galaxy and has provided art for role-playing games and collectible cards.

The artist Graham Humphreys is also appearing.  Humphreys rose to fame as the artist of the original film posters for The Evil Dead and A Nightmare On Elm Street.  He has gone on to create poster art and covers for a variety of books and films, and will have original prints and books of his work at the event.

Also returning to SFW will be the much-missed board games room, hosted by a team of experienced demonstrators and game hosts.  There will be fast and fun games like Dobble and Just One, as well as a couple of large group games, such as Blood on the Clocktower, and a few mid-weight games like Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne.

Unlike other conventions, SFW continues the party into the night.  This year’s performances have a distinctly steampunk theme, with Professor Elemental returning, as well as the queen of chaphop herself Madam MisfitPaul Eccentric and the Antipoet will also be performing, as well as comedian George Coppen.

The nighttime entertainment will be brought to a climax by the comic con DJ Levelup Leroy, who will be rocking out with his geek-themed playlists.

Elven Throne

Elven Throne is an upcoming fantasy board game for three to six players, based around influence and negotiation in a high-fantasy setting.  Each player takes on the role of a House within the Elven courts, as they vie to gain control.

From the outset, Elven Throne looks amazing. The cover artwork sets the high-fantasy themes and each of the world tiles has some fantastic pen-and-ink character drawings that reflect their impact on the game.

The boards and components are all solidly made and are utterly in keeping with the theme and mood of the game. Although there are only a few boards – the elven court and other areas – the randomised nature of setup, using the world tiles, ensures that there will be a lot of variation between games.  Likewise, each of the Houses are quite varied and require different strategies in order to be effective.  Some are also easier to play than others, but offer a rich diversity in gameplay possibilities.

The game is relatively easy to set up, provided that the components have been sorted into their own bags.  The boards are laid out, each player chooses a House, then the world tiles are laid out.  The randomised nature of the board game can lead to humorous instances, such as the chaotic-evil human bar tender being on an elven throne.

Unfortunately, problems start following the set-up, when we tried to actually play the game.  The rules, as they currently stand in the English language edition, are incredibly hard to follow.  There are rules that contradict each other, as well as several spelling mistakes and repeated sentences. The rule books also use game symbols, rather than game terms, which results in a lot of flicking between pages to decipher what is meant.

One of the main problems was understanding the mechanics of counteractions.  It was unclear how many iterations of counteractions could be played, and there was conflicting guidance on how to use the counteraction tokens.

Despite having three experienced gamers around the table, with many decades of gaming experience between us, we were unable to understand how the game is meant to be played.  This is a massive shame, as the premise of Elven Throne and design of the components is sound, it is just the poorly written nature of the rulebook that lets it down.

Elven Throne has the potential to be an amazing game; it looks great and has some fantastic ideas.  However, that is providing the rulebook is completely rewritten.

Note: Elven Throne is still in development and was played using a February 2024 version of the rules.

Dragons of Fate, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Dragons of Fate is the second book by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman in the new Dragonlance trilogy; Dragonlance Destinies.  Although reading the first book (Dragons of Deceit) is not essential, this would provide additional background and thus offer a more satisfying reading experience.

Dragons of Fate continues the adventure of Destina, as she attempts to go back in time to save her father.  However, her plans go awry when she goes further back in time than she intended, to the time of the third dragon war.  Joining Destina are Raistlin Majere and Sturm Brightblade.  Readers of previous Dragonlance novels will naturally recognise these names.

In the process of going back in time, Destina unintentionally brought with her Raistlin and Sturm. This was the doing of Chaos, trapped in the Graygem of Gargath, which Destina carries with her.  Also, along for the journey, is Tasslehof Burrfoot, the original bearer of the time journeying device.

Whilst Destina is the core protagonist of the Dragons of Fate, Raistlin and Sturm are very much the principal characters here.  Although it was initially disconcerting having these two characters return after their storylines had concluded, it actually makes a lot of sense.  Raistlin and Sturm are complete opposites and their relationship was never explored as much as it should have been in previous Dragonlance novels.  It is also interesting to see how they relate to the legendary Huma and his war mage friend Magius.

The story is set mostly in and around the High Clerist’s Tower, just before the attack by the armies of Takhisis.  This is a pivotal moment for the setting of Krynn, as Huma confronting Takhisis is the turning point in the war.  But with the Chaos now in this time, none of this is guaranteed, so it is up to Destina, Raistlin, Sturm and Tasslehoff to return to their own time without disrupting history.

It would be fair to say that things do not go to plan, especially when Tasslehoff is involved, and part of the fun of Dragons of Fate is watching Tasslehoff interacting with the various characters.  Tasslehoff has always been a marmite character, but he is used well, adding a touch of light to moments of darkness.

Raistlin remains as fascinating as always.  He is a deliciously complicated character that is continuing to evolve.  His complex portrayal is often at odds with the seemingly more simplistic representations of the other characters.  For example, all goblins are evil.  This could be due to the time when Dragonlance was first developed, but it was disconcerting when these moments arose in the narrative.

One confusing point of Dragons of Fate is that Raistlin and Sturm have memories up to the point of their death, but their skills and bodies from the start of the first Dragonlance book.  It could be argued this was necessary for Raistlin, as he was an incredibly powerful mage by the end, but may be confusing for some readers.

Keeping the narrative fixed around the tower adds a claustrophobic element to the story, as the characters attempt to survive the coming battle.  In many ways it is akin to David Gemmel’s Legend, which has a similar premise.  Including a map of the tower and its surroundings would have been a great addition.

Dragons of Fate was a thrilling read with some excellent characterisation.  This was a book that sang when focusing on Raistlin and Sturm.  The story builds to a fantastic conclusion, which ends on a cliff-hanger twist leading into the final book in the Dragons of Destiny trilogy.  Anyone who read Dragonlance novels back in the day will find a lot to like in this latest novel from Weis and Hickman.

Megacon Live at London Excel: A Mixed Bag of Pop Culture Delights

Megacon Live, the latest offering from Malo Events, promised an amalgamation of modern pop culture, spanning film, TV, gaming, anime, social media, and retail, all packed into one epic weekend at the renowned London Excel. With over 30 years of event industry expertise, Malo Events aimed to deliver an unforgettable experience, encouraging attendees not only to participate but also to share their adventures online.

This year marked a significant shift as Megacon Live debuted at the Excel centre, a venue previously monopolised by MCM Comic Con for many years. Excitement brewed among convention veterans curious to see if this new event could fill the void left by MCM’s perceived shortcomings of being overpriced, overcrowded, and underwhelming.

Pros:

Disability in Cosplay Panel (on a TokFEST stage?)

The Excel centre as always proved to be a worthy venue, offering ample space and amenities that attendees appreciated. The event felt less crowded compared to its predecessors, allowing for a more comfortable and enjoyable experience. Furthermore, the presence of more artist alley stalls and independent traders added diversity and excitement to the shopping experience. Attendees also praised the inventive use of photo backdrop areas, adding an extra layer of fun to the event.

In addition, Megacon Live demonstrated a commendable commitment to the cosplay community. The designated cosplay zone, while a common feature at many events, stood out for its spacious layout. Attendees praised the provision of changing areas, convenient bag storage, and a dedicated space for costume repairs. The inclusion of friendly and helpful advice for cosplayers added a welcoming touch, enhancing the overall experience. The volunteers involved in managing the cosplay zone should be applauded for their efforts in creating a supportive and enjoyable environment for cosplay enthusiasts.

Cons:

However, Megacon Live faced its fair share of challenges. The decision to host the event in early January was met with mixed feelings. The cold weather, coupled with open venue doors, made for an uncomfortable experience, deterring some attendees from fully enjoying the event. Moreover, the timing of the event posed difficulties for those who struggled to take time off work or had limited funds post-festive season.

Security measures at the event also came under scrutiny. The premature closure of the venue doors 30 minutes before the advertised closing time left many attendees distressed, unable to retrieve purchased items or belongings from the baggage drop. Additionally, photographers faced restrictions on capturing moments throughout the venue, leading to frustration among cosplayers and photography enthusiasts.

In addition to the challenges mentioned, Megacon Live faced criticism regarding accessibility. Numerous attendees reported issues with accessible toilets, with several being closed off throughout the event. This posed a significant inconvenience and discomfort for individuals who required these facilities. The lack of clear signage further exacerbated the problem, making it difficult for attendees to locate the available accessible toilets. Improving accessibility and providing clearer signage should be prioritised in future events to ensure an inclusive and positive experience for all attendees.

Furthermore, the integration of other events, such as “tokfest,” within Megacon Live’s space created confusion and diluted the overall brand experience. Vendors reported issues with communication and logistics, with some items not arriving on time for setup, highlighting a broader issue with organisation and management.

In conclusion, Megacon Live at London Excel showcased the potential to be a new beacon in the pop culture event landscape, capitalising on the strengths of its venue and diverse offerings. However, certain logistical and organisational challenges need to be addressed to ensure a seamless and enjoyable experience for attendees in future iterations.

One of many backdrops, somewhat confusing in theme, we can’t help but feel a postcard from a fantasy/gaming location would be been more thematic…

Alien: Building Better Worlds

It would be far to say that much of the material released for Alien: The Alien Roleplaying Game was focused on the original trilogy of films (Alien, Aliens and Alien3), plus Alien: Resurrection to a lesser extent.  However, that all changed with the latest sourcebook, Building Better Worlds, which feels closer to Ridley Scott’s more recent Alien films (Prometheus and Covenant).

As the name implies, Building Better Worlds focuses on terraforming alien worlds.  This is a mammoth book; coming in at nearly three hundred pages.

The source book is split into two sections; the first section, containing the first five chapters, is focused on general information that characters will know and will be useful for players to read.  These chapters cover life in the colonies, creating colonist characters and the equipment necessary for colonising alien planets.

The second, much larger section is purely for games masters.  This section is dedicated to the running of games based around colonisation and alien planets.  Building Better Worlds delves deeply into the outer colonies of the Alien universe, as well as providing an ‘extrasolar species catalogue’, which is exactly what it sounds like – different types of alien life for characters to encounter.

There are also rules for creating new colonies, including an appendix for an expanded system on generating planets for players to explore.  Many of these are presented as a series of charts, where games masters can choose the different planetary conditions and geography either by choice or by rolling a series of six-sided dice (as a D66).

The final two chapters of Building Better Worlds is The Lost Worlds campaign.  This campaign is quite different to previous published scenarios for the Alien roleplaying game.  These have been ‘cinematic scenarios’ that recreate the mood – and lethality – of an Alien film, but The Lost Worlds campaign offers a different experience.

The Lost Worlds campaign is seven interconnected adventures with sandbox play style, in that the pacing is informed by player decisions.  The campaign could be dropped into an existing ongoing campaign, but the excellent background campaign offers fantastic storytelling opportunities.

The campaign overview provides all the necessary guidance for running an extended sandbox campaign, including session zeroes for initial character creation and downtime – the time between sessions for players to pursue minor storylines.  There is a lot of information to be absorbed, but it is well worth a read for even the most experienced games master.

The scale and scope of The Lost Worlds campaign is designed for experienced games masters, due the sheer breadth of the storyline.  Novice games master who are new to Alien: The Roleplaying Game, would be advised to develop their familiarity with the game using cinematic scenarios and shorter campaigns before attempting to run this game.

As this is by Freeleague, Building Better Worlds looks amazing and has an aesthetic that is utterly in keeping with the Alien setting – it just oozes atmosphere and much of the background material will inspire storylines that could be run.  The artwork is crisp and evocative, with much of the equipment having their own images, which is incredibly useful when describing vehicles and items to players for the first time.

Overall, Building Better Worlds is a fantastic addition to Alien: The Roleplaying Game and an essential component for anyone wanting to run games in the exploratory style of the more recent Alien films.