How Sega and the Dreamcast offer a valuable lesson for streaming platforms

In 2001 I was bitterly disappointed by the failure of the Dreamcast – a console I’d only owned for about a year and had hoped would carry me through to the next generation of home consoles. For a variety of reasons that essentially boil down to mismanagement, worse-than-expected sales, and some pretty tough competition, Sega found itself on the verge of bankruptcy. The company responded not only by ending development on the Dreamcast, but by closing its hardware division altogether.

At the time, Sega seemed to be at the pinnacle of the games industry. For much of the 1990s, the company had been a dominant force in home video game consoles alongside Nintendo, and as the new millennium approached there were few outward signs of that changing. It was a massive shock to see Sega collapse in such spectacular fashion in 2001, not only to me but to millions of players and games industry watchers around the world.

The Sega Dreamcast failed in 2001.

Thinking about what happened from a business perspective, a demise like this was inevitable in the early 2000s. Both Sony and Microsoft were arriving in the home console market with powerful machines offering features like the ability to play DVDs – something that the Dreamcast couldn’t do – but at a fundamental level the market was simply overcrowded. There just wasn’t room for four competing home consoles. At least one was destined for the chopping block – and unfortunately for Sega, it was their machine that wouldn’t survive.

But the rapid demise of the Dreamcast wasn’t the end of Sega – not by a long shot. The company switched its focus from making hardware to simply making games, and over the next few years re-established itself with a new identity as a developer and publisher. In the twenty years since the Dreamcast failed, Sega has published a number of successful titles, snapped up several successful development studios – such as Creative Assembly, Relic Entertainment, and Amplitude Studios – and has even teamed up with old rival Nintendo on a number of occasions!

The end of the Dreamcast was not the end of Sega.

I can’t properly express how profoundly odd it was to first see Super Mario and Sega’s mascot Sonic the Hedgehog together in the same game! The old rivalry from the ’90s would’ve made something like that impossible – yet it became possible because Sega recognised its limitations and changed its way of doing business. The board abandoned a longstanding business model because it was leading the company to ruin, and even though it does feel strange to see fan-favourite Sega characters crop up on the Nintendo Switch or even in PlayStation games, Sega’s willingness to change quite literally saved the company.

From a creative point of view, Sega’s move away from hardware opened up the company to many new possibilities. The company has been able to broaden its horizons, publishing different games on different systems, no longer bound to a single piece of hardware. Strategy games have been published for PC, party games on the Nintendo Wii and Switch, and a whole range of other titles on Xbox, PlayStation, handheld consoles, and even mobile. The company has been involved in the creation of a far broader range of titles than it ever had been before.

Sega’s mascot Sonic now regularly appears alongside old foe Super Mario.

So how does all of this relate to streaming?

We’re very much in the grip of the “streaming wars” right now. Big platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ are battling for subscribers’ cash, but there’s a whole second tier of streaming platforms fighting amongst themselves for a chance to break into the upper echelons of the market. The likes of HBO Max, Paramount+, Apple TV+, Peacock, BritBox, and even YouTube Premium are all engaged in this scrap.

But the streaming market in 2021 is very much like the video game console market was in 2001: overcrowded. Not all of these second-tier platforms will survive – indeed, it’s possible that none of them will. Many of the companies who own and manage these lower-level streaming platforms are unwilling to share too many details about them, but we can make some reasonable estimates based on what data is available, and it isn’t good news. Some of these streaming platforms have simply never been profitable, and their owners are being propped up by other sources of income, pumping money into a loss-making streaming platform in the hopes that it’ll become profitable at some nebulous future date.

There are a lot of streaming platforms in 2021.

To continue the analogy, the likes of Paramount+ are modern-day Dreamcasts in a market where Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+ are already the Nintendo, Xbox, and PlayStation. Breaking into the top tier of the streaming market realistically means one of the big three needs to be dethroned, and while that isn’t impossible, it doesn’t seem likely in the short-to-medium term at least.

Why did streaming appeal to viewers in the first place? That question is fundamental to understanding why launching a new platform is so incredibly difficult, and it’s one that too many corporate executives seem not to have considered. They make the incredibly basic mistake of assuming that streaming is a question of convenience; that folks wanted to watch shows on their own schedule rather than at a set time on a set channel. That isn’t what attracted most people to streaming.

Too many corporate leaders fundamentally misunderstand streaming.

Convenience has been available to viewers since the late 1970s. Betamax and VHS allowed folks to record television programmes and watch them later more than forty years ago, as well as to purchase films and even whole seasons of television shows to watch “on demand.” DVD box sets kicked this into a higher gear in the early-mid 2000s. Speaking for myself, I owned a number of episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation on VHS in the 1990s, and later bought the entire series on DVD. I had more than enough DVDs by the mid-2000s that I’d never need to sign up for any streaming platform ever – I could watch a DVD every day of the year and never run out of different things to watch!

To get back on topic, what attracted people to streaming was the low cost. A cable or satellite subscription is easily four or five times the price of Netflix, so cutting the cord and going digital was a new way for many people to save money in the early 2010s. As more broadcasters and film studios began licensing their content to Netflix, the value of the deal got better and better, and the value of cable or satellite seemed ever worse in comparison.

Streaming isn’t about convenience – that’s been available for decades.
(Pictured: a 1975 Sony Betamax cabinet)

But in 2021, in order to watch even just a handful of the most popular television shows, people are once again being forced to spend cable or satellite-scale money. Just sticking to sci-fi and fantasy, three of the biggest shows in recent years have been The Mandalorian, The Expanse, and The Witcher. To watch all three shows, folks would need to sign up for three different streaming platforms – which would cost a total of £25.97 per month in the UK; approximately $36 in the United States.

The overabundance of streaming platforms is actually eroding the streaming platform model, making it unaffordable for far too many people. We have a great recent example of this: the mess last week which embroiled Star Trek: Discovery. When ViacomCBS cancelled their contract with Netflix, Discovery’s fourth season was to be unavailable outside of North America. Star Trek fans revolted, promising to boycott Paramount+ if and when the streaming platform arrived in their region. The damage done by the Discovery Season 4 debacle pushed many viewers back into the waiting arms of the only real competitor and the biggest danger to all streaming platforms: piracy.

Calls to boycott Paramount+ abounded in the wake of the Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 mess.

The streaming market does not exist in a vacuum, with platforms jostling for position solely against one another. It exists in a much bigger digital environment, one which includes piracy. It’s incredibly easy to either stream or download any television episode or any film, even with incredibly limited technological know-how, and that has always represented a major threat to the viability of streaming platforms. Though there are ethical concerns, such as the need for artists and creators to get paid for their creations, that isn’t the issue. You can shout at me until you’re blue in the face that people shouldn’t pirate a film or television show – and in the vast majority of cases I’ll agree wholeheartedly. The issue isn’t that people should or shouldn’t engage in piracy – the issue is that people are engaged in piracy, and there really isn’t a practical or viable method of stopping them – at least, no such method has been invented thus far.

As more and more streaming platforms try to make a go of it in an already-overcrowded market, more and more viewers are drifting back to piracy. 2020 was a bit of an outlier in some respects due to lockdowns, but it was also the biggest year on record for film and television piracy. 2021 may well eclipse 2020’s stats and prove to have been bigger still.

The overcrowded streaming market makes piracy look ever more appealing to many viewers.

Part of the driving force is that people are simply unwilling to sign up to a streaming platform to watch one or two shows. One of the original appeals of a service like Netflix was that there was a huge range of content all in one place – whether you wanted a documentary, an Oscar-winning film, or an obscure television show from the 1980s, Netflix had you covered. Now, more and more companies are pulling their content and trying to build their own platforms around that content – and many viewers either can’t or won’t pay for it.

Some companies are trying to push streaming platforms that aren’t commercially viable and will never be commercially viable. Those companies need to take a look at Sega and the Dreamcast, and instead of trying to chase the Netflix model ten years too late and with far too little original content, follow the Sega model instead. Drop the hardware and focus on the software – or in this case, drop the platform and focus on making shows.

Some streaming platforms will not survive – and their corporate owners would be well-advised to realise that sooner rather than later.

The Star Trek franchise offers an interesting example of how this can work. Star Trek: Discovery was originally available on Netflix outside of the United States. But Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Lower Decks went to Amazon Prime Video instead – showing how this model of creating a television show and selling it either to the highest bidder or to whichever platform seems like the best fit for the genre can and does work.

Moves like this feel inevitable for several of these second-tier streaming platforms. There’s a hard ceiling on the amount of money folks are willing to spend, so unless streaming platforms can find a way to cut costs and become more competitively priced, the only possible outcome by the end of the “streaming wars” will be the permanent closure of several of these platforms. Companies running these platforms should consider other options, because blindly chasing the streaming model will lead to financial ruin. Sega had the foresight in 2001 to jump out of an overcrowded market and abandon a failing business model. In the two decades since the company has refocused its efforts and found renewed success. This represents a great model for streaming platforms to follow.

All films, television series, and video games mentioned above are the copyright of their respective owner, studio, developer, broadcaster, publisher, distributor, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

It’s disappointing that Rangers of the New Republic has been axed

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for The Mandalorian and the Star Wars sequel trilogy.

I’ve made no secret here on the website over the past couple of years that I’m not exactly thrilled with the direction of the Star Wars franchise. In the aftermath of the total narrative failure of The Rise of Skywalker, Lucasfilm has doubled down hard on overplaying the nostalgia card in practically all of its upcoming projects.

There’s some kind of series or miniseries focusing on R2D2 and C-3PO in development. There’s a prequel to Rogue One focusing on Cassian Andor. There’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, which will bring back the classic character to look at his life in between the prequels and the original films. There’s The Book of Boba Fett, in which Boba Fett is inexplicably back from the dead. There’s Ahsoka, a spin-off from The Mandalorian focusing on a character from the animated shows.

Boba Fett is one of several minor characters returning to Star Wars.

All of these projects indicate to me that the higher-ups at Disney and Lucasfilm don’t really know how to handle the Star Wars franchise. They’re intent on looking backwards at Star Wars’ past, seeming to think that what the franchise was is all it can ever be in the future. The result is spin-offs from spin-offs, prequels to prequels, unimportant chapters being thrown under the microscope, and characters of decreasing importance thrust into the spotlight.

Though it was purported to be a spin-off from The Mandalorian, one of the few announced projects that seemed to have any semblance of originality was Rangers of the New Republic. The series was to have looked at the New Republic – the galactic government which was created by the Rebel Alliance following the events of Return of the Jedi – in far more detail than ever before. However, Rangers of the New Republic has now been cancelled.

Logo for Rangers of the New Republic.

The New Republic hasn’t been explored in much detail in Star Wars’ main canon, instead being relegated to a background role in both The Mandalorian and the sequel trilogy. In The Force Awakens, we see Starkiller Base deployed against the New Republic’s capital system, destroying its government institutions and much of its military. By the time of The Last Jedi, the First Order is said to be in control of much of the galaxy, and the New Republic isn’t mentioned thereafter.

The Mandalorian showed us a glimpse of the New Republic, including how it tries to police outlying star systems and enforce its laws – and how it’s relatively ineffective at doing so. There was potential to expand on this depiction, showing both the governmental side of the New Republic, hampered by legislative inefficiencies, as well as the actual Rangers themselves.

A New Republic pilot seen in The Mandalorian.

A lot of Star Wars projects currently in production look at morally ambiguous characters. The Mandalorian focuses on a bounty hunter – someone who primarily operates outside of the law, albeit that he has a heart of gold underneath his armour. The Book of Boba Fett will focus on another Mandalorian bounty hunter, and if it stays true to its premise will show us Star Wars’ seedy underworld in more detail.

Andor will follow Cassian Andor – a character whose moral ambiguity was on full display in Rogue One, and who will do anything to advance the Rebels’ cause. Ahsoka is going to follow the titular Ahsoka Tano, an ex-Jedi who appears to be off doing her own thing rather than helping Luke Skywalker and the Rebels. The only series following an out-and-out hero – or one of the unambiguously “good guys” – is Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Cassian Andor will be the focus of a new Disney+ series.

Rangers of the New Republic had the potential to show us a different side of Star Wars – arguably one closer thematically to the original films, yet still distinct and independent of them. While other shows would look at the underworld of the galaxy, at criminals, or at spies who’ll do anything for their cause, Rangers of the New Republic could’ve been a breath of fresh air. The series could’ve presented an optimistic cast of characters who were genuinely trying to help the new government succeed.

Characters who are too pure and excessively virtuous can be boring, and that would’ve been a pitfall that Rangers of the New Republic would’ve needed to avoid. But had the show managed to walk that line, we might’ve seen something a bit different from Star Wars’ other current and upcoming offerings: a show that would’ve happily looked at the “good guys” as they tried to shore up the New Republic and tackled everything from criminals to ex-Imperial officers.

Emblem of the New Republic.

In part, the decision to cancel Rangers of the New Republic is probably tied to the situation with Cara Dune actress Gina Carano. Though it was never officially stated that the show would star Carano, many fans and commentators assumed that she would have a significant role to play, so following her dismissal from Lucasfilm in the aftermath of some very stupid social media posts, perhaps the show was always living on borrowed time.

We won’t get into the Gina Carano situation here. Suffice to say that anyone with any kind of profile needs to be incredibly careful what they say on social media, and she wasn’t. She upset a lot of people, doubled down on some of her controversial remarks, and that ended up costing her a potential recurring gig with Lucasfilm. She only has herself to blame.

Gina Carano as Cara Dune in The Mandalorian Season 1.

I would argue, though, that Rangers of the New Republic didn’t need to be all about Cara Dune. We met a couple of New Republic characters in The Mandalorian, and they could’ve served as a gateway into the show, keeping it connected to The Mandalorian and potentially building up to a crossover event with one or more of the other shows that were in production at the same time.

There was potential in Rangers of the New Republic. Not only was it a series that could’ve been something different from the likes of The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett by looking at the post-Return of the Jedi government, but it was also a series that could’ve left familiar characters behind to strike out on its own. All of the other Star Wars projects currently in production have this kind of backwards-looking, nostalgia-heavy focus, and Rangers of the New Republic was one of the few offerings that had the potential to be something a little different. As Star Wars continues to double down on nostalgic throwbacks, I fear we’ll come to regret the cancellation of Rangers of the New Republic.

The Star Wars franchise – including all films and series mentioned above – is the copyright of Lucasfilm and The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Lego Star Wars Terrifying Tales – a review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Lego Star Wars Terrifying Tales. Spoilers are also present for other iterations of the Star Wars franchise, including the following films and shows: The Mandalorian Season 2, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and The Rise of Skywalker.

It’s Spooktober – the spookiest month of the year! To celebrate Halloween at the end of the month, Disney and Lucasfilm released Lego Star Wars Terrifying Tales on Disney+, a Star Wars-themed kid-friendly Halloween special. Last year’s The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special – which I didn’t get around to reviewing in time for Christmas – was a ton of fun, so I had high hopes going into Terrifying Tales. Stay tuned for a review of The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special in late November or December, by the way, as I’m adamant that I’ll finally review it this year!

Terrifying Tales was incredibly funny, at least equalling last year’s Lego Star Wars offering. It was the kind of silly, irreverent style of humour that Lego Star Wars is known for, and also drew on a number of different classic horror tropes. I had a wonderful time with the forty-five minute special, and if I had one criticism it would be that I wish we got these Lego Star Wars special episodes more often!

Poe Dameron and BB-8 with new character Dean.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of horror. Some horror stories can be a mental health trigger for me, so I tend to avoid the genre as a whole unless I’m really sure that I’m in the right frame of mind. But Terrifying Tales was exactly the kind of child-friendly light horror that appeals to me. The animated special made use of a horror-themed aesthetic and horror-based stories, and played up some familiar tropes, but it did so without being frightening. If you’re concerned about younger kids or anyone of an especially sensitive disposition, I didn’t see anything in Terrifying Tales that I feel would be particularly scary or upsetting.

Lego Star Wars has been something I’ve adored since the release of the first video games in the mid/late 2000s; 2007’s Lego Star Wars The Complete Saga is undoubtedly one of the best video games I played during the Xbox 360 era. I’ve also been eagerly awaiting the newest Lego Star Wars video game which is due for release in the spring. Watch this space again, because I hope to review the game when it’s released!

I’m already looking forward to the next Lego Star Wars project!

Last year’s Lego Star Wars Holiday Special managed to get a great balance of prequel era, original era, and sequel era references and stories, and I was incredibly pleased to see Terrifying Tales managed to do the same. At first I was worried that the special was going to lean very heavily on the sequels, with Poe Dameron as its primary character. However, while the frame narrative focused on Poe, there were plenty of references and callbacks even then to past iterations of Star Wars. Overall, Terrifying Tales managed to get the right mix of characters and storylines from the cinematic franchise’s three main eras.

The frame narrative was typical Lego Star Wars silliness, with a Hutt having taken over Darth Vader’s abandoned Mustafar castle. Planning to turn the Sith fortress into a Las Vegas-style hotel, the setting was a great mix of creepy and silly – there was more than enough light-heartedness in the modifications made to the intimidating castle to tone it down and take the edge off the spookiness. At the same time, the castle was a great setting. It had a fairly typical “haunted castle” vibe, complete with darkened hallways and imposing architecture. Even in the lobby, which was brimming with Vegas-inspired (or perhaps Disneyland-inspired) kitsch and souvenir shops, there was still a creepy background note, as though the place wasn’t entirely safe.

Darth Vader’s castle – now with gift shop!

As the characters ventured further into Vader’s castle, however, the setting took on a different feel. It became less of a haunted castle and more akin to an ancient temple – or a pyramid from a classic mummy film. Deep within the bowels of Vader’s abandoned fortress, hidden rooms with unclaimed – yet cursed – treasures and cleverly-operated switches and traps awaited Poe, BB-8, and the rest of the cast. The castle thus served a dual purpose, and to cram both settings into one locale in a way that felt natural and that didn’t feel rushed shows some pretty great writing.

The only thing that the frame narrative perhaps lacked were more recognisable characters. I’ve argued on a number of occasions that the Star Wars franchise is overly-reliant on characters from its past and that I wanted to see more original creations – but Terrifying Tales isn’t really where I expected to meet a whole bunch of newbies! To see Poe without Rey or Finn was just odd, and as much fun as characters like Vaneé and Graballa the Hutt were, the frame narrative could’ve found a way to include more familiar characters. Lego Star Wars is the one place where bringing back classic characters makes sense – and it’s also where logic and internal consistency matter far less, so there’s plenty of ways to do so! It wasn’t a fatal flaw by any means, and I enjoyed Poe’s mentoring of young Dean in particular. But it was certainly noteworthy that this part of the story really only had Poe and BB-8 in terms of familiar faces.

Poe was the main character in Terrifying Tales.

Graballa the Hutt gave me almost a Ferengi vibe with his unchecked capitalistic greed, and though we didn’t get much time for any of these characters to be truly fleshed-out, there was enough of a moral shadiness to him that left me in no doubt the kind of character this was. Graballa’s the kind of money-driven dodgy boss who’ll cut any corner to save a buck and would’ve sold out Poe and Dean and everyone else for his own safety. He made a fun addition to the group as comic relief, but at the same time he was a constant cause for concern – he’d trade everyone’s lives for a shot at his own survival, and in horror stories those kinds of characters can cause a lot of trouble!

Vaneé is a character who first appeared in Rogue One, and whose role was expanded upon in the novelisation of the film. He’s also made appearances in a number of Star Wars comics – none of which I’m familiar with. For all intents and purposes, though, the character we met in Terrifying Tales was a blank slate upon which the animated special could craft a suitably over-the-top villain!

This character from Rogue One, seen bowing to Darth Vader and informing him of Krennic’s arrival, is Vaneé.

Vaneé definitely had a creepiness to him during the story. He set up the three vignettes in a suitably spooky manner, and the voice performance from Tony Hale was an exquisite parody of these kinds of characters from classic horror films and shows like The Twilight Zone. The downtrodden, overlooked butler or apprentice with an evil streak is an archetype of the genre, and Vaneé slotted into that role perfectly in Terrifying Tales.

At the climax of the story, after we’d been treated to the three vignettes, Vaneé made his grab for power via a Sith artefact that looked an awful lot like the wayfinder from The Rise of Skywalker. From that moment on he was no longer a creepy character but a completely over-the-top pantomime villain – and I loved that transformation! In a story like Terrifying Tales, with all of the silliness and light-heartedness of the Lego Star Wars brand, a villain who goes completely hell-for-leather into wanting to rule the galaxy was pitch-perfect.

The villainous Vaneé!

But we’re racing ahead of ourselves! Before we get to Vaneé’s endgame and thus the end of Terrifying Tales we first have to look at… well, the titular terrifying tales themselves!

The first of the three was titled The Lost Boy, and focused on Ben Solo and the Knights of Ren some time prior to The Force Awakens. And it was surprisingly fun! The Knights of Ren were presented as basically a motorcycle gang, wreaking havoc on a village or community somewhere in the vicinity of Luke’s new Jedi Temple. The idea that the Knights of Ren already existed before Ben Solo became Kylo Ren is actually an interesting one, and the cameo from Christian Slater as the leader of the gang was neat as well.

The Lost Boy lasted six minutes, yet managed to contain more backstory for Kylo Ren than the entire sequel trilogy! And no, this isn’t going to turn into another rant about The Rise of Skywalker, but I really felt that the way we saw Ben Solo presented in this short story was far better and more sympathetic than we ever saw in the live-action films. We saw his bad attitude as a student, his arrogance and desire to learn the Force more quickly, and these things informed his fall as the story ran on. Feeling constrained and restricted by his uncle, he was tempted by the Knights of Ren and their charismatic leader, and that set him on a dark path.

The Lost Boy gave us Kylo Ren’s backstory that was missing from the sequel trilogy!

Sadly that isn’t canon! But it was surprisingly cathartic, especially after the way The Rise of Skywalker ended, to get some kind of origin story for Ben Solo that we could see for ourselves and not hear second-hand from other characters.

The dream sequence during this short story was fantastic. It was incredibly well-animated, and had a very trippy presentation that really did feel like we were following Ben Solo into a nightmare. The way Ben was haunted by a face seeming to come out of the ceiling, then was transported into a creepy dream-world was incredibly well-done, and by far the highlight of this part of the story. As the leader of the Knights of Ren appeared to Ben in his dreams I got a Nightmare on Elm Street vibe – as if something deadly was about to happen.

The leader of the Knights of Ren.

Though this was an “alternative” take on Kylo Ren’s creation and Ben Solo’s fall, I really liked it. There were some great moments of humour, particularly Ben commenting on Luke training for “like twenty minutes” on Dagobah – a reference to The Empire Strikes Back and how Jedi training seems to progress very differently for Luke compared to other characters! But it was also a story of teen angst, rebellion, and the fall of a character to the Dark Side. Because we didn’t get to see Ben’s fall in canon, I found it particularly interesting.

The second vignette brought us a battle between General Grievous and Darth Maul. Terrifying Tales called out how patently ridiculous it was for Darth Maul to have been revived – finally! The Star Wars franchise apparently loves to bring back characters who were clearly and unequivocally dead: Palpatine in The Rise of Skywalker, Boba Fett in The Mandalorian, and of course Darth Maul in The Clone Wars television series and Solo. But the fact that such “back from the dead” moments are ridiculous needed to be called out, and it was done so here in incredibly fun fashion!

Darth Maul’s return from being dead was always ridiculous… and Terrifying Tales pointed that out!

Maybe you’ve always wondered who would win in a fight between Grievous and Maul. I hadn’t, but their duel was still action-packed and fun to watch. This was perhaps the least “terrifying” of the three stories, by which I mean it had the least focus on any horror trope or element. The cursed lightsaber was an interesting macguffin, but I didn’t really feel that it had much of an impact on either mechanical monstrosity as they fought over it. If anything, it had a similar effect to the Ring in The Lord of the Rings, giving both characters a Gollum-like craving.

The real standout star of The Duelling Monstrosities, though, was Palpatine. This version of Palpatine as a nonchalant, almost casual manager of his Empire is never not funny! If you’re familiar with the way Palpatine was parodied in the likes of Robot Chicken and the Family Guy Star Wars specials, this depiction is comparable. If not, go and watch the Robot Chicken Star Wars specials at the very least, because they’re hilarious!

Palpatine was hilarious in this vignette.

Palpatine carried this segment and provided much of its comedy. He was hilarious as he pitted Maul and Grievous against one another – accidentally, of course! And then betrayed the victor to claim his prize of the broken cursed lightsaber. We never did find out why he wanted it, but it didn’t matter!

The third vignette was inspired by the 1902 short story The Monkey’s Paw, and there were elements of the 1960 Twilight Zone episode Man in the Bottle too – itself a loose adaptation of that short story. It was by far the creepiest short story in terms of its setup and premise, and Vaneé gave his best Twilight Zone-inspired speech to tee up the tale.

The Twilight Zone-inspired title card for The Wookie’s Paw.

Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader were the stars this time around, with Luke wishing upon a Wookie’s paw to grant wishes for himself. In this alternate version of A New Hope, Luke becomes an Imperial pilot and Darth Vader’s Dark Side protégé. If you’ve ever wondered what might’ve happened had Luke been trained by Vader, The Wookie’s Paw gives us a glimpse into that alternate reality!

In true Monkey’s Paw fashion, though, everything is not what it seems. Luke’s wishes come with a price – and after using the cursed Wookie’s paw to rise through the ranks and become a pilot and Sith apprentice, Luke goes too far. By wishing for fame he actually gets notoriety, accidentally blowing up the Death Star while trying to defend it from a Rebel attack. It was actually pretty funny to see him make such a catastrophic mistake!

Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

The interplay between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader was surprisingly cute in The Wookie’s Paw. Though both remained blissfully unaware of their familial connection, Vader took on a similar mentor/fatherly role to Luke as Obi-Wan had in A New Hope, and seeing Luke go through a Dark Side version of some classic training scenes – from the training droid to carrying Vader on his back – was both sweet and funny at the same time.

If you’ll forgive a short detour, what I liked about this story was that the cursed Wookie’s paw didn’t actually change the outcome of A New Hope. Princess Leia stepped up to lead the assault on the Death Star in Luke’s absence, aided by Obi-Wan Kenobi, who survived in this alternate timeline. Luke still fired the torpedoes that destroyed the battlestation, even if he didn’t mean to. The message, aside from “be careful what you wish for,” is one of fate and destiny. Even if Luke Skywalker were removed from the equation – or fighting for the other side – the Rebellion still prevailed.

Be careful what you wish for, Luke!

So we come to the finale! Once the three vignettes were over and Poe had been led deep into the heart of Darth Vader’s fortress, Vaneé revealed his ultimate plan. Using Dean to open the Sith holocron, he used it to seize the power of the Dark Side. Cloaking himself in armour he resembled a Sith monster, and he used his newfound power to turn an army of zombified battle droids on Poe, Dean, and Graballa.

This was perhaps the most intimidating battle droids have ever felt in Star Wars! From their first appearance in The Phantom Menace all the way through the prequels battle droids were presented as cheap cannon fodder and even comic relief to be laughed at. Turning them into zombies with glowing red eyes, and pitting a small band of heroes against them and their master, was an interesting and surprisingly fun turn. One of the battle droids even got a moment inspired by classic film The Shining, which was absolutely hilarious!

Zombified battle droids!

After a conversation between Poe and the charming Dean about how fear is natural and something everyone experiences, the duo were able to save the day and defeat Vaneé. There was a neat battle between Poe and Vaneé that showed off Lego versions of the AT-ST and AT-AT walkers, before Vaneé was finally thrown into Mustafar’s lava just like his master before him! It was a tense yet fun battle, and giving Dean the opportunity to save the day was perfectly in line with the kind of story that Terrifying Tales aimed to be.

I had fun with Terrifying Tales. It was a cute Lego Star Wars parody that delivered everything I wanted and expected, and even managed to throw in a few neat surprises and things I didn’t even know I needed to see! The animation work was fantastic, a perfect blend between computer-animated Star Wars locales and a distinctive Lego aesthetic for the characters and vehicles. A project like this could’ve come across as an extra-long toy commercial, but I didn’t get that sense at all. It was a fun Star Wars-themed Halloween romp.

Terrifying Tales was a great way to kick off the spookiest season of the year for me! There’s only a little over three weeks left until Halloween, and I have a few more spooky ideas up my sleeve before the month is over, so I hope you’ll come back for some of those! Happy Spooktober!

Lego Star Wars Terrifying Tales is available to stream now on Disney+. The Star Wars franchise – including Lego Star Wars Terrifying Tales and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Lucasfilm and The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Book of Boba Fett: Thoughts, hopes, and expectations

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the Star Wars franchise, including The Mandalorian Seasons 1-2 and Return of the Jedi.

“Mixed feelings” might be the best phrase to describe my attitude toward the upcoming Disney+ Star Wars series The Book of Boba Fett. I have no doubt that the series will do a lot of things well, from visual effects to exciting action sequences. But if you recall my criticisms from 2020 when it was first rumoured that Boba Fett might be included in Season 2 of The Mandalorian, the bare premise of the series is enough to leave me underwhelmed.

Let’s be blunt for a moment. Boba Fett was a dull character whose entire popularity in the early 1980s came from his unique-looking armour. This led to sales of action figures, models, and dolls – and an oversized, undue gravitas given to a minor, one-dimensional foil for Han Solo. Boba Fett does have a unique, cool look, I won’t deny that. But his role in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi was minor, and his death in the latter film was a fittingly unspectacular end for an unspectacular character.

Boba Fett’s popularity stems from toys and action figures. By the way, does anyone else really dislike Pop Vinyl/Funko Pop? I just can’t get on board with the design of practically any of their figures…

However, Boba Fett’s popularity endured over the years, helped in no small part by his character being fleshed out in a fan-fictiony way by writers of the old Expanded Universe books and comics. So by the time of the prequels, George Lucas and others involved in the production of those films clearly felt an obligation to include backstory for him as well.

I don’t hate Boba Fett, but when I watched the Star Wars trilogy for the first time I just didn’t get the hype. Why was this character so remarkable considering he did one thing – captured Han Solo – then died in a pretty stupid way when his jetpack misfired? And he didn’t even capture Han Solo himself, he had to enlist the help of Darth Vader and a whole legion of Stormtroopers. In short: cool-looking armour, but that’s about as much as I can say about Boba Fett in his original incarnation.

Boba Fett’s first appearance in The Empire Strikes Back.

However, The Book of Boba Fett isn’t following the character as he appeared in the original films. As I noted in my review of Season 2 of The Mandalorian, the character introduced to us as “Boba Fett” feels a long, long way removed from the bounty hunter we met in The Empire Strikes Back. His entire demeanour was so radically different that I said in my review that the two characters feel entirely separate. The plot of The Mandalorian Season 2 wouldn’t have been any different had that character been given a different name and Boba Fett never been mentioned.

One thing I will credit The Mandalorian’s Boba Fett with is that I felt the character got a more nuanced portrayal than he ever did in the films. There was a sense that this man was a weary veteran, ready to hang up the armour and live a quiet life somewhere. He’d fought all the battles he wanted to fight and was ready to try something new – at least until we saw him in the final moments of the season seemingly intent on seizing control of Tatooine’s underworld.

Boba Fett as he initially appeared in The Mandalorian Season 2.

Just like The Rise of Skywalker had done before it with Palpatine, The Mandalorian Season 2 completely ignored what has to be the most important point about Boba Fett: how on earth is he still alive? If the new series can find a way to pull an answer to that question out of its backside that even makes a degree of sense, it’ll have made progress. And I think that’s my biggest single request when it comes to the storyline of The Book of Boba Fett: find some way to give us a plausible explanation for the main character’s survival.

Remember that Boba Fett fell into the gaping mouth of a giant monster in the Tatooine desert. The Sarlaac monster in the Pit of Carkoon was presented as a truly awful torturous death, supposedly taking a long time in its inescapable digestive tract. Jabba the Hutt was said to favour this method of execution, and planned to execute Luke Skywalker and Han Solo there in Return of the Jedi. Boba Fett fell into the monster’s mouth, and that seemed to be a very definitive end for him!

How did Boba Fett survive? Finding a plausible answer is key to the show’s success.

One aspect of the story of The Mandalorian Season 2 has potentially complicated any story of Boba’s escape. The fact that his armour had been lost on Tatooine, recovered by Jawas and later sold to Cobb Vanth clearly indicates that Boba didn’t simply blast his way out of the creature as soon as the battle on Jabba’s barge was over. Because he fell into the pit wearing his armour – and thus carrying at least some of his weapons – the show might’ve been able to argue that he didn’t die and simply shot his way out. But if so, he’d have kept his armour.

So the question of his survival remains, and in the aftermath of just how poorly the awful line “somehow Palpatine returned” went down in The Rise of Skywalker, I can’t imagine that The Book of Boba Fett would try to ignore this point. Even if all we get are a few lines of dialogue saying that he climbed out and was saved by roaming scavengers or Chewbacca’s great-aunt, I think we need some kind of closure before we can take seriously the fact that Boba Fett is back.

Boba Fett, moments before dying like a chump.

Then we come to the premise of the series itself, and this is perhaps what I’m most interested in. One of my biggest disappointments when it came to The Mandalorian was that the show’s basic premise remains unfulfilled despite sounding incredibly promising. I wanted to see “the adventures of a gunslinger away from the reach of the New Republic,” but instead the show brought Baby Yoda, the Force, the Empire, and even Luke Skywalker into play in a story that increasingly felt like Return of the Jedi II as Season 2 wore on.

The Book of Boba Fett promises us the following: “Legendary bounty hunter Boba Fett and mercenary Fennec Shand navigating the galaxy’s underworld when they return to the sands of Tatooine to stake their claim on the territory once ruled by Jabba the Hutt and his crime syndicate.”

Though I stand by my criticisms of the Star Wars franchise making desperate nostalgia plays for characters and settings from the original films, that premise doesn’t sound half bad. Though I don’t want to get my hopes up too high after being burned by The Mandalorian, maybe we can finally get a look at the Star Wars galaxy away from the Force and the Skywalker family.

Hopefully The Book of Boba Fett won’t be repeating scenes like this one…

Boba’s survival after falling into the Pit of Carkoon risks coming across as cheap, fan-servicey, and just plain dumb. But if the show can find some way to navigate that sizeable pitfall (pun intended), then Boba Fett could actually prove to be an interesting point-of-view character for exploring the darker side of the Star Wars galaxy.

As an ex-bounty hunter, Boba Fett used to inhabit this seedy underworld that the show’s official description is teasing us with. But as someone who’s been out of action for almost a decade at this point, things have moved on in his absence. The biggest change, most likely, is the fall of the Empire. Without the Empire to crack down on criminals, and with the New Republic taking a different approach, it’s possible that the criminal underworld has grown since Return of the Jedi.

What will the criminal underworld be like after the fall of the Empire?

Boba Fett will have to navigate a changed world, and that offers up a lot of potential for exposition and explanation to be dropped into the series in a way that makes sense. There’s a high probability of learning more about the Star Wars galaxy – and particularly its criminal side – than we ever have before. That idea is definitely an interesting one, and though I wouldn’t personally have chosen to bring Boba Fett back from the dead in order to tell this kind of story, as a concept it’s hard to fault.

As a character, Boba Fett is perhaps open to further exploration. As I noted above, in his original appearances he was fairly one-dimensional, and his role in The Mandalorian Season 2 came with a degree of mystery to it. There’s scope to learn more about Boba Fett the man: who is the person underneath the armour? What drives him? What are his ambitions now that he’s got his armour back and taken over Jabba’s former throne? All of these things could potentially lead to interesting moments of characterisation, and as a concept the idea of an anti-hero or a villain with a heart and understandable motivations can work exceptionally well.

Din Djarin with Boba Fett in The Mandalorian Season 2.

All of this could come to pass if the show stays true to its premise! And this is where my concerns kick in. As Boba Fett’s return proves in and of itself, the Star Wars franchise is completely and utterly dependant on its original films and the characters and concepts that were present there. The Mandalorian brought us Baby Yoda, the Force, Ahsoka, the Empire, and Luke Skywalker in its first two seasons – along with dozens of other throwbacks to Star Wars’ past. Some of these elements came close to working, but overall they drowned out any originality the series could’ve had. I fear that The Book of Boba Fett will meet a similar fate.

There are all manner of ways this could happen. Off the top of my head, here are a few: Boba Fett comes into conflict with Luke Skywalker and his new Jedi Order somehow, perhaps even seeking revenge for his encounter with the Sarlacc. Maybe Han Solo will be a target of Boba Fett’s over the course of the show, again looking for revenge. Some other Jedi could emerge, perhaps a character from the prequels or one of the kids’ shows. Boba Fett could encounter Jedi or Sith artefacts, which would bring the Force into the series. And so on. There are many ways that we could see the show fall back on these nostalgia plays and fail to live up to its potential.

Promotional poster for The Book of Boba Fett.

I’d love for The Book of Boba Fett to have more to offer than nostalgic throwbacks, good visual effects, and well-constructed moments of action and excitement. Whether it will or not… well, the jury’s still out. I’m hopeful, but cautious.

The Book of Boba Fett exists in a strange space for me. I should feel more excitement for what is only the second ever live-action Star Wars television series, especially considering the huge budget afforded to shows made for Disney+ and the platform’s excellent track record with visual effects. Star Wars has literally never looked better in terms of visuals and special effects, and with the franchise taking a different turn to perhaps visit the seedier underworld in depth for the first time, there are things that pique my interest. I’m just having a hard time jumping on the hype train.

Despite that, I will do my utmost to give The Book of Boba Fett a fair shake. It will premiere on the 29th of December – right in the middle of Star Trek: Discovery’s imminent fourth season. I can’t promise I’ll have time to review every individual episode with so much else happening in December, but I’ll certainly share my thoughts on the series at some point, so I hope you’ll stay tuned for that. I’d love to be able to come back after the show’s first season and say that my fears and doubts were unfounded.

The Book of Boba Fett will premiere on Disney+ on the 29th of December 2021. The Star Wars franchise – including The Book of Boba Fett and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Lucasfilm and The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Darth Vader in the Obi-Wan Kenobi series

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the Star Wars franchise, including The Mandalorian Seasons 1-2, Jedi: Fallen Order, and the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series.

We’ve known for a while that the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series will feature Darth Vader – somehow. Hayden Christiansen, who played Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels, has even signed on to play the role, something which has excited at least some Star Wars fans. Today we’re going to consider what kind of role the Obi-Wan Kenobi series could offer to the franchise’s most iconic villain, and how the show will have to navigate a tricky situation of its own making.

Regular readers will know that I haven’t exactly been wild about many of the recent decisions taken by the Star Wars franchise. The Mandalorian, which seemed to offer such promise when it was announced, very quickly returned to the Force and the Skywalker family, and brought in a number of characters and settings that were lifted directly from the original trilogy. When Lucasfilm announced a slate of upcoming Star Wars projects last December, I felt that the franchise was doubling down on this kind of nostalgia play, unwilling to step out of the shadow of the original films and tell new stories. The inclusion of Darth Vader in the Obi-Wan Kenobi series – and indeed the very existence of the show itself – is a case in point.

Iconic villain Darth Vader is set to return to Star Wars very soon.

Regardless of what I and others may think, this is the direction Lucasfilm and Disney have chosen for the franchise. The most generous thing I could say about it is that, following the controversy generated by the sequel trilogy, they’re retreating to what they consider to be safe, comfortable ground for the foreseeable future. Returning the franchise to characters fans know and (mostly) love may be indicative of a franchise aiming for a grade C – a basic pass – but perhaps after the controversies of recent years, the higher-ups think that will be good enough.

Although the decision to return to classic characters may seem to be the safe path in the aftermath of the sequels, it’s not one that is free from danger. Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi may indeed prove to be bankable characters – along with the likes of Boba Fett in his upcoming spin-off – but fans won’t forgive Disney and Lucasfilm if the way these characters are used undermines their previously-established arcs.

What role will Vader play in the upcoming series?

When it comes to Darth Vader’s inclusion in the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, to me the single most important thing is that the two characters simply can’t be permitted to meet. A New Hope was their first face-to-face meeting since their duel on Mustafar, and were they to meet in the series it would seriously undermine the power of that moment.

We could talk at length about the failures of the prequel trilogy – and I have in the past – but to me their most egregious fault was the harm done to the character of Darth Vader. In the original films we’d learned all we needed to know about this character – he had once been good, then fell to the dark side, but had enough residual love for his son to be ultimately redeemed in the moments before his death. He was an intimidating villain, but one we could feel a pang of sympathy for. Seeing him as a child and a whiny teenager detracted from that; his background was over-explained.

I would argue that we didn’t need to see Anakin as a child and young man to understand Darth Vader in the original films.

Vader has already been undermined by the prequels, and it’s difficult to see him in the same frightening way as I did on first watching the Star Wars films in the early 1990s. But throwing him into a face-to-face meeting with Obi-Wan years before their iconic duel aboard the Death Star would rob the original film of one of its most significant moments. It would feel like cheap fan-service and accomplish nothing.

There are ways for Darth Vader to play a role in the new show’s story – even a major role – without having him and Obi-Wan meet. The show is set at least a decade after the events of Revenge of the Sith, meaning that Darth Vader’s role as the second-in-command of the Empire is well-established by this point. He’s a senior leader who answers directly to the Emperor with his own dedicated Stormtrooper corps, and has spent much of his time chasing surviving Jedi and enforcing the Emperor’s rule on wayward systems.

More than a decade after the events of Revenge of the Sith, Vader’s role in the Imperial hierarchy should’ve solidified.

We also know that Darth Vader has an intense hatred of the planet Tatooine. Obi-Wan chose the planet for his and Luke’s hiding place specifically for that reason, so Vader shouldn’t set foot on the planet for the entirety of the story. And really, Obi-Wan shouldn’t leave the planet either! It was strongly suggested in Revenge of the Sith and the original trilogy that he and Yoda wouldn’t leave their respective exiles, and Luke Skywalker seemed to have known “Old Ben” for his entire life.

This was something that led me to be sceptical of the Obi-Wan Kenobi series from the outset; how much of an adventure can “Old Ben” have within a few miles of Mos Eisley and his desert hut? I assume, though, that he will ultimately leave the planet at some point – it would be a pretty dull series otherwise!

What did “Old Ben” do in the years prior to A New Hope?

But if a significant portion of the action takes place on or in the vicinity of Tatooine, and Vader won’t set foot on the planet, then we have a pretty good reason for keeping the characters apart and preserving the special moment in A New Hope. But that still raises the question of what kind of role Darth Vader will have in the series.

If I were writing it, I’d use Darth Vader sparingly. He could be the overarching villain, sending out his troops or henchmen on missions for the Empire without ever having to interact with Obi-Wan personally. He might have a minor role in a couple of episodes, or he could appear toward the end of the season, with the revelation being that whoever Obi-Wan has been battling is actually one of Vader’s henchmen. This would still have to be done in a way that kept the knowledge of Obi-Wan’s survival and location from Vader, and that’s a difficult line for the series to walk.

Darth Vader with some of his loyal Stormtroopers in A New Hope.

It isn’t impossible for Darth Vader to be included in a Star Wars story in this fashion. The video game Jedi: Fallen Order did something similar – players spend much of the game facing off against the Second Sister and other forces of the Empire, only for Darth Vader to reveal himself at the story’s climax. In the case of Jedi: Fallen Order there wasn’t a pressing need to keep protagonist Cal Kestis away from Vader in the way there is in the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, but the game was better for having more original characters, at least in my opinion.

Although some prequel fans are undoubtedly looking forward to Vader’s return, I’m more interested to see what original characters the Obi-Wan Kenobi series will introduce us to. Will the titular ex-Jedi be facing off against the forces of the Empire? Presumably the inclusion of Darth Vader means there’ll be some kind of Imperial involvement in the story somehow. But I’m just as interested to see what Obi-Wan might get up to on Tatooine, outside of Vader’s reach.

Darth Vader appeared in the video game Jedi: Fallen Order.

At the end of the day, I wouldn’t have chosen to greenlight a series like this one. And if I were tasked with picking it up after it had already been greenlit, I’d have certainly kept characters like Darth Vader far away from the new show. Even though we’ve spent more time with him than we arguably needed to, Darth Vader can still be used to great effect in Star Wars, and I don’t want to say that there’s no room whatsoever for the franchise’s first and most iconic villain going forward. But the Obi-Wan Kenobi series just feels like a bad fit.

These are two characters who spent a long time apart, totally disconnected from one another for almost two decades prior to their fateful meeting aboard the Death Star. Maybe there’s a way for Obi-Wan to learn that Anakin survived and became Darth Vader – we know he was aware of his former apprentice’s identity by the time of A New Hope. Maybe there’s a way for Vader to be included in some kind of flashback, dream, or vision. But I can’t imagine that the series could get away with having the two face off against one another or have another duel. How would such a meeting end? If Vader so much as knows that Obi-Wan is alive – let alone meeting or fighting him – it undermines a key part of the original film.

The Obi-Wan Kenobi series will have to tread very carefully so as not to further undermine Darth Vader’s character and the story of the original films.

Having made this announcement and gone to a lot of trouble to include Darth Vader in the conversation surrounding the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, some fans will feel let down if Vader’s role is reduced to some kind of dream or flashback. I still think he could be included as some kind of overall villain, provided it was handled in such a way as not to overwrite anything we learned in A New Hope. But to me, this is a pretty egregious example of Star Wars skirting too close to canon for comfort. It’s not as bad as bringing Palpatine or Boba Fett back from the dead with no explanation, but it’s straying into that territory.

I’d love to say I’m excited for the Obi-Wan Kenobi series… or any upcoming Star Wars project, for that matter. At best, though, what I can muster is cautious interest. I’m curious to see what Obi-Wan got up to during the years we all assumed he was living in quiet seclusion on Tatooine. I just hope that the story doesn’t go off the rails. The decision to bring Darth Vader into the story has me more nervous than excited, and if I’d been in the room I’d have argued very strongly against it.

The Obi-Wan Kenobi series will be broadcast on Disney+ in 2022 or 2023. The Star Wars franchise – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Lucasfilm and The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Mandalorian theory – Baby Yoda

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Mandalorian Seasons 1-2. Further spoilers are present for Jedi: Fallen Order, Rogue One, The Last Jedi, the prequel trilogy, and the original trilogy.

Let’s get a couple of things straight right off the bat: I don’t think The Mandalorian is an especially good show, and I don’t want either of these theories to turn out to be true. In both cases the reason is pretty much the same: the Star Wars franchise as a whole, and The Mandalorian in particular, greatly overplays the nostalgia card, and were either theory I’m about to discuss prove to be true, it would represent yet another example of the show’s writers and producers being unwilling to let it stand on its own two feet.

With that caveat out of the way, I’ve got a couple of theories regarding The Mandalorian that I’ve finally decided to write down. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s come up with these concepts; it seems like it would be a pretty easy way of joining up some of the dots present in the franchise. But regardless, we’re going to talk a little about Baby Yoda – or to give him his proper name, Grogu.

Today we’re looking at the cutest little critter in Star Wars – Baby Yoda!

In Star Wars’ main canon – not including anything from the now-overwritten Expanded Universe – there have only been three members of Yoda’s species shown on screen. Yoda himself of course debuted in The Empire Strikes Back, then in The Phantom Menace we briefly met Yaddle, another Jedi Master who served on the Jedi Council. Finally we have Grogu himself, and that’s it. Of all the races and species in Star Wars, few are as mysterious and under-explored as Yoda’s species – it doesn’t even have a name.

This is odd, actually. Star Wars’ old Expanded Universe delved into the backstories of countless minor characters and background races, and while much of that has been overwritten, some elements have made their way back into canon. But even in old Expanded Universe projects that did feature members of Yoda’s species, like Knights of the Old Republic for example, we still didn’t learn anything about them – not even a name. When you consider that the Expanded Universe dived deeply into the backgrounds of races like the Quarren or the Rodians, neither of which had major characters in any of the films, for Yoda’s species to be left alone is certainly unusual. You’d think it would’ve been ripe for an Expanded Universe author to have explored at some point.

Yoda’s species has never been explored – not even in the old Expanded Universe.

The rarity of Yoda’s species also raises interesting points, one of which is connected to the two theories we’re discussing today. Every member of Yoda’s species that we meet in canon is Force-sensitive, which is already a point of interest. But the fact that the race seems to be so uncommon, and doesn’t have a known homeworld suggests that there is something strange going on. Is Yoda one of the sole survivors of his species, perhaps?

If so, perhaps Yoda – and possibly Yaddle – are the parents of Grogu. Though Yoda explained in Revenge of the Sith that for a Jedi, attachments and romantic entanglements are off-limits due to their opening up a path to the Dark Side, if he’s a member of a dead or dying species, the needs of his people may have overcome this. It would make sense that we had never met Grogu before the events of The Mandalorian, as Yoda would not have played any role in his upbringing – merely delegating that role to the Jedi Order once the infant had been conceived. This theory could also account for Yaddle’s absence after The Phantom Menace, as she may have been more involved with Grogu or even left the Jedi Order to raise him.

Yaddle was a Jedi Master during the events of The Phantom Menace.

This theory relies on Yoda – at well over 800 years old – becoming physically intimate with another member of his species. Sorry for giving you that particular mental image! But as we learned in The Mandalorian Season 2, Grogu’s M-count – assumed to be short for his midichlorian count – was said to be exceptionally high. This could be natural for Yoda’s species, as Yoda was said to have a high midichlorian count himself, but it could also be a genetic trait passed from parent to child. If Grogu’s parents were two Jedi Masters, that could explain his abnormally high level of midichlorians.

It could also explain Luke Skywalker’s interest in Grogu. Though it seems as though Luke would’ve been interested in recruiting any Force-sensitive child for his nascent Jedi Academy in the years after the Battle of Endor, if he knew Grogu’s true identity after conversing with the ghost of Yoda that may have given him an extra incentive to rescue the youngling. It could also explain how Ahsoka knew Grogu’s name – he didn’t communicate it to her, as she implied when she spoke with Din Djarin, but she’d already met him during her time as a Jedi apprentice.

Luke Skywalker in The Mandalorian Season 2.

With cloning technology featuring prominently in both The Mandalorian and The Rise of Skywalker, another possibility is that Grogu is in fact a direct clone of Yoda. As above, this would account for his unusually high level of midichlorians, but would avoid the need for Yoda to have had any role in conceiving an offspring. Though we do know that Grogu spent some time prior to Order 66 at the Jedi Temple, if he were a clone of Yoda that doesn’t mean that the Jedi played any role in his creation.

It would be possible for some nefarious faction – perhaps even the Sith themselves – to have attempted to create a clone of Yoda, hoping to turn Grogu into a powerful Dark Side user. The prequels showed us Yoda’s capabilities in much more detail; suffice to say that a Dark Side clone of Yoda would be an incredibly useful weapon for the Sith – or anyone else. Perhaps such a scheme was uncovered by the Jedi during the years prior to Order 66, and Grogu came to reside at the Jedi Temple after being rescued.

The Jedi Temple on Coruscant was Grogu’s home prior to the downfall of the Jedi Order.

Cloning would tie in thematically to points already present in The Mandalorian, as well as in the broader Star Wars franchise, so I could certainly see the story going in this direction. It would require a bit of backstory to explain who created Grogu and how he came to be rescued, but it wouldn’t be impossible to pull off from a narrative point of view. With cloning having already been introduced into the series and prominently featured, it could even be argued to make sense.

There is one more dimension to this theory, though, and it’s one that I’ve been wary of since Baby Yoda first appeared in the show in late 2019. Rather than being a child or clone of Yoda, could it be that The Mandalorian is setting up a story where Grogu is, in fact, Yoda himself?

Could Grogu actually be Yoda?

This might sound preposterous, and if it weren’t for Star Wars’ overreliance on characters and storylines from the original trilogy I probably wouldn’t consider it a realistic possibility. But given that the franchise is intent on looking backwards, and that The Mandalorian has already brought two major characters from the original films into its narrative, nothing would surprise me any more!

So here’s another caveat: I’m not familiar with everything that happened in the animated shows The Clone Wars and Rebels. But as I understand it, time travel is possible and has been depicted in those shows. Ahsoka Tano, who appeared in Season 2 of The Mandalorian, had her life saved thanks to the intervention of a time traveller who used something referred to as the “World Between Worlds” to rescue her from certain death at the hands of Darth Vader. The World Between Worlds also showed up in last year’s Lego Star Wars Holiday Special – but I’m pretty sure that appearance is non-canon!

Could Grogu travel back in time through a portal like this one?

The point is that time travel in some form does exist within Star Wars. Not only that, but at least one character present in The Mandalorian has some experience with the World Between Worlds. Suddenly it doesn’t seem to be impossible to think that Grogu might be sent back in time – either intentionally or accidentally.

One of the tragedies of The Mandalorian – as things sit right now, anyway – is that Grogu isn’t safe with Luke Skywalker. The events of The Mandalorian occur years before the sequel trilogy, before Luke’s Jedi Order was destroyed by Kylo Ren. According to what we learned in The Last Jedi from Luke himself, the only students who survived went on to serve the Dark Side as the Knights of Ren. Grogu seems to have been too young to have joined the Dark Side, so the logical conclusion is that he was killed along with Luke’s other students.

Luke’s new Jedi Order was destroyed by Kylo Ren. All of his apprentices were killed. But was Grogu among them?

Star Wars has certainly told stories with unhappy endings before. Heck, the entire prequel trilogy was a story that led to a very dark place, with characters like Padmé ultimately dying at the end. Rogue One likewise ended with the deaths of Jyn, Cassian, and everyone else involved in the mission to steal the Death Star plans. So it wouldn’t be out of character for the franchise to go to all of this trouble to set up a story in which Grogu ultimately dies and never gets to train and become a Jedi.

However, something about the way the story has been told – particularly in the final few episodes of Season 2 that really tried hard to ramp up the emotional connection between Din Djarin and Grogu – seems to be telling me that it might not end the way we currently think. It’s certainly true that there are ways Grogu could survive the attack on Luke’s Jedi Order that don’t involve time travel, and in many ways such a story would be much easier to construct. But there are possible points in its favour – by which I mean points that seem to make this storyline at least a possibility, not points that would make it a good story!

Grogu aboard the Razor Crest.

We know that Yoda’s species are very rare in the Star Wars galaxy. It’s not impossible to think that the race could have gone extinct with the passing of Yoda and Yaddle; they may have been two of the last survivors. We also have the presence of Ahsoka Tano, whose life was saved by time travel. And finally, we know that Grogu has a way of instinctively using the Force at key moments; it’s a power that’s beyond his control in some respects, yet one he has used repeatedly to save himself and others. He’s also potentially very powerful in the Force – perhaps as powerful as Yoda.

It’s not impossible to think that, before or during the attack on Luke’s new Jedi Order, Grogu would call on the Force to help him escape Kylo and the Knights of Ren. We’ve seen a couple of different ways to open a portal to the World Between Worlds, and Grogu could summon one himself – or someone already inside the World Between Worlds might open a portal and arrive to rescue him.

Might Grogu use the Force – intentionally or accidentally – to escape from Kylo Ren?

Once in the World Between Worlds, Grogu might be sent back in time, either intentionally or accidentally, emerging 900+ years in the past. From there, it’s a short hop to joining the Jedi Order, which would still exist in this time period. Without adding anything new to Star Wars, it’s possible, based on what we already know, for Grogu to “become” Yoda.

From the moment I saw Baby Yoda in the first couple of episodes of The Mandalorian, I began to worry that this would be the character’s ultimate destination. I mentioned at the beginning that I don’t think this theory would make for an enjoyable or satisfying story, and I stand by that. The Mandalorian has been a let-down for me because of its overuse of elements from Star Wars’ past, and if its entire story were ultimately revealed to involve yet another classic character, well I just don’t think that would be to the show’s overall benefit.

From the moment “Baby Yoda” appeared I began to wonder if the show would ultimately go down this route.

This kind of time travel story also happens to be one of my least-favourite tropes of the genre: the time-loop. Grogu was saved by Luke because Luke was trained as a Jedi by Yoda, who was saved as a baby by Luke. The whole thing becomes circular, and while Star Wars has often tried to tell stories that were symmetrical or that used comparable settings and character concepts, this would be a step beyond that. It would become a paradox; how could Yoda train Luke without Luke first saving him? And how could Luke save Grogu if he hadn’t first been trained as a Jedi? There’s no solution to such a storyline, and I personally find this type of time travel narrative annoying.

Time travel, as I find myself saying all too often, is exceptionally difficult to get right. It’s far too easy for a story to trip over itself and get all tied up in knots trying to explain away inconsistencies and paradoxes. For me, the idea that Grogu might be sent back in time to become Yoda is a classic example of such a story. Even if Luke hadn’t been involved in saving his life from the Dark Troopers at the end of Season 2, I still wouldn’t want the story to go down this road – nor for Grogu to be revealed to be Yoda’s clone or offspring.

Luke Skywalker with Grogu.

The Mandalorian teased a concept that I still find genuinely interesting: “the adventures of a gunslinger far from the reach of the New Republic.” But by bringing the Force, Boba Fett, and the Skywalker family into its storyline in significant ways, that premise hasn’t really been fulfilled – at least not yet.

Grogu’s departure at the end of Season 2 could be the soft reboot The Mandalorian needs. It could offer the series a fresh start, with Din and his companions setting off for new adventures away from the Jedi and the Skywalker family. For Star Wars this would be huge – it’s impossible to overstate how big of a deal finally breaking away from the Skywalkers and the Force would actually be. Season 3 or 4 bringing Grogu back and setting up this kind of time travel or cloning storyline would feel regressive in a series which, for me, already relies far too heavily on nostalgia for the franchise’s past.

Saying goodbye to Grogu could set the stage for new stories in Season 3 and beyond.

Shows like Obi-Wan Kenobi and The Book of Boba Fett can carry the torch for classic characters. Perhaps The Mandalorian can continue to chase down Moff Gideon, the Dark Troopers, and the cloning facility that I swear was creating Snoke. Tying the series into the sequel trilogy, not the original trilogy, would be a bold move, and might even go some way to rescuing some of the sequels’ less successful story elements.

Anyway! Those are all fantasies that may yet play out in future seasons and future stories. For now, I’ll bring this piece to a close by summarising my theories: Grogu is either a clone of Yoda, a child of Yoda, or will be sent back in time somehow in order to become Yoda himself. Even though I don’t necessarily want to see any of these theories make it to the screen, I will be very curious to see if any of the upcoming Star Wars projects give us more information about Grogu, Luke’s recreated Jedi Order, or anything else we’ve talked about today. Something tells me that Grogu’s story isn’t complete and that he won’t meet the ignominious end of being killed by Kylo and the Knights of Ren. Stay tuned, because if it turns out I’m right I’ll be sure to have something to say about that!

The Mandalorian Seasons 1 and 2 are available to stream now on Disney+. The Star Wars franchise – including The Mandalorian and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Lucasfilm and The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Jungle Cruise – film review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Jungle Cruise.

Any review of Jungle Cruise on Disney+ needs to take into account the film’s price tag. Right now Jungle Cruise costs £20 in the UK or $30 in the United States to “unlock,” and thus the film’s value will vary from viewer to viewer. For my two cents, unless you’re a huge fan of the original Jungle Cruise ride at the Disney theme parks or a particular fan of either Dwayne Johnson or Emily Blunt, this is probably a film to wait for. In a matter of months, and certainly by Christmas, the film will be added to the regular Disney+ lineup, and though I had a decent enough time with Jungle Cruise, I’m not sure that I necessarily got £20 worth of enjoyment from it. If you’re on the fence, trying to decide whether to pay up or wait, I think this is one you can safely wait for.

That being said, Jungle Cruise was enjoyable. I’ve said this before, but in 2002-03 when Disney was talking about adapting Pirates of the Caribbean into a film, I thought it sounded like an atrocious idea! How could a theme park ride possibly translate to the screen, I wondered? I was wrong about Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl then, and if I had similar doubts about Jungle Cruise eighteen years later then I was wrong again! The film was decent, and paid homage to a classic ride which has been part of Disneyland since the very beginning.

Jungle Cruise poster.

If you’re fortunate enough to have ridden Jungle Cruise, you’ll recall that there is a “story” of sorts to the ride itself. Obviously the film takes liberties with this, chopping and changing things to make the story more suited to the screen rather than a semi-interactive theme park attraction. But I was surprised at just how well Jungle Cruise captured the feel of the original ride, with Dwayne Johnson’s character of Frank taking the role of the Disneyland boat captain from the attraction.

There were nods to other aspects of the ride as well, particularly in the film’s opening act with Frank’s literal jungle cruise entertaining the tourists with the same mixture of dad jokes and props as the ride itself. As the story went on, the film naturally stepped away from being true to the ride to focus on a story that was not dissimilar to the aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean film, complete with cursed undead sailors, a magical macguffin, and lashings of aquatic adventure.

Quila hits the rapids!

There were several surprisingly poignant and emotional moments in Jungle Cruise which I wasn’t expecting. Aside from the typical Disney happily ever after ending (complete with a fake-out sad ending which preceded it) the tastefully handled moment where Jack Whitehall’s character of MacGregor came out to Frank was a very sweet inclusion. Not only did it add personality and dimension to both characters – MacGregor gained a backstory of rejection and further reason to follow Lily, and Frank came across as accepting and kind – but it was a huge step for representation and inclusion. Seeing MacGregor experience rejection yet find acceptance in the most unlikely of places is a powerful message, and the mere act of LGBT+ representation in a blockbuster film is always fantastic to see. Such a message is especially important for younger viewers.

While we’re discussing some of Jungle Cruise’s deeper themes, the film took a dim view of wealth, aristocracy, and closed societies – despite practically all of its main characters being drawn from the upper classes of their day. MacGregor’s unease at having to experience life away from his home comforts was initially played for laughs – though he did become more comfortable with it as the film reached its end. The villain of the piece being a German aristocrat was also a continuation of this theme, as was the initial depiction of Frank as the last independent river boat captain – and the poorest.

Dwayne Johnson as Frank, the riverboat captain.

Having seen a number of films with British villains over the last few years, the decision to make the German Prince Joachim the main adversary to Frank and Lily was actually a bit of a change. There was a time a few years ago where villains in cinema were often German – or of German extraction. But enough time has passed and enough other villains have come and gone that the return to a German villain didn’t feel like stereotyping or a trope in the way it might’ve done had Jungle Cruise been made in the recent past.

The story itself took a couple of unexpected twists. The revelation that Frank wasn’t who he seemed to be definitely came as a shock – but in a good way! Sometimes twists of this nature can feel rushed or like they jolt the story in an unwanted direction, but learning Frank’s true origin managed to avoid that pitfall. It made his character feel more rounded and gave him motivation. We learn why he wanted to take Lily upriver – and why he was so convinced she wouldn’t succeed in her quest to find the Tears of the Moon.

Lily was seeking the Tears of the Moon.

Frank’s “betrayal” of Lily and MacGregor – which he apparently set up off-screen with Trader Sam and her tribe – was perhaps the weakest moment in the story. It did nothing to endear us to Frank, and while it was arguably in character for him it robbed what was initially set up as a tense moment of practically all of its drama. Though the threat and peril were restored after a brief respite, the way the film handled this moment was poor overall.

Representation of native peoples and their relationship to colonists has come a long way in recent years, and when looking back at past Disney depictions of indigenous peoples – such as in Peter Pan or even the original incarnation of the Jungle Cruise attraction – the way the “headhunter” tribe was presented was an improvement. Considering the tribe played a relatively minor role in the film, what we saw worked well. The depiction retained some of the mystery that westerners have of indigenous peoples – something that the original ride drew on for part of its threat – yet at the same time made at least one key character relatable.

The tribal chief.

Jungle Cruise also didn’t shy away from depicting the brutality of colonisation, showing Conquistadors savagely attacking a tribe of native people even after being offered shelter, food, and medicine. However, the film then immediately strayed into once again mystifying the tribespeople by giving them magical powers seemingly connected to the Tree of Life. Overall, the way Jungle Cruise handled its characters’ interactions with indigenous people was better than in some Disney titles, particularly older ones, but arguably imperfect and verging into some of the tropes commonly associated with such tribes in fiction.

Aside from the opening act, which was set in London, and a few other scenes near the beginning of the piece, Jungle Cruise broadly stayed true to its premise as a film about a voyage on a riverboat. The boat itself had character, being old and beaten-up, and was memorable for the way it looked while again retaining some of the charm of the original Disneyland attraction. Quila (Frank’s boat) was not only the characters’ home and method of transportation, but also played a key role toward the end of the story by blocking the river water and saving Lily and MacGregor. Giving the boat more to do in the story than simply be an ever-present stage for the characters made a huge difference to the film, and made its setting feel meaningful.

Quila – the boat – was almost like an extra character in the film.

Though the Conquistadors wanted to kill Frank – and later Prince Joachim – they seem to have had similar objectives when it comes to acquiring and using the Tears of the Moon, and as a result some of the moments toward the film’s climax felt rather forced. Obviously Lily and MacGregor had an incentive to stop the Prince and his gang of German submariners, as they clearly had nefarious intentions for the magical macguffin. But the Conquistadors had basically the same objective as Frank – to lift their curse – and it felt like there could have been a moment near the end of the film where they had all realised that they didn’t need to fight. In fact I initially wondered if Prince Joachim’s betrayal of the Conquistadors was going to set up precisely that kind of storyline. It feels like a miss that it didn’t, as the film basically ended with the heroes defeating two parties of villains.

There’s always room in fiction for that kind of narrative; not every story has to depict an emotional coming together and teaming up to defeat a worse villain. But the disturbing implication to the way Frank’s story ended is that he simply left the Conquistadors to endure endless torture; they’re unable to die and it didn’t seem as though he took action to lift their curse. Perhaps this is Disney leaving the door open to a sequel?

Did Frank and Lily condemn the Conquistadors to eternal torture?

Speaking of the way the film ended, with Frank and Lily only able to pluck a single petal from the tree, all Lily really got to do was write up her adventure and land herself a job. In the male-dominated world that the film depicted that is unquestionably a victory for her – but her original ambition had been to use the Tears of the Moon to “revolutionise medicine” and save countless lives, not least in the ongoing First World War. It seems as though this ambition was thwarted, yet the film skips over this point.

Jack Whitehall is not someone I would have expected to see in a film like Jungle Cruise, but he put in a creditable performance as MacGregor. His stand-up act often draws on his self-styled “posh” image, and his character felt like an exaggerated version of that in some respects. Emily Blunt was outstanding in the role of Lily, bringing real personality to the character and crafting a heroine that we as the audience wanted to get behind. Dwayne Johnson seemed at first to be playing a fairly typical “Dwayne Johnson” role, but the addition of an unexpected backstory for his character of Frank took the character to a different place and forced him to step out of his comfort zone and play things differently as the film passed the two-thirds mark. Though perhaps it wasn’t an Oscar-worthy performance, I found Frank to be a believable protagonist and someone I wanted to see succeed.

MacGregor and Frank shared a genuinely touching moment in Jungle Cruise that I wasn’t expecting.

Jungle Cruise relied heavily on CGI almost throughout, and not all of the animation work was as realistic as it could’ve been. Recent productions, even on television, have seen some truly outstanding CGI work, and while nothing in Jungle Cruise was awful or even immersion-breaking, there were quite a few elements that didn’t look quite right. At a number of points I felt that some of the CGI had that “too shiny,” plastic look that plagued CGI a few years ago, and I really thought that animation – especially cinematic animation – had begun to move past that particular issue.

I would’ve liked to have seen more physical props and practical effects, and the fact that a large portion of Jungle Cruise was filmed with green screens and other modern tricks wasn’t as well-concealed as it might’ve been. And perhaps this final point on visuals is a bit of a nitpick, but the fact that a number of the so-called “jungle” sequences were filmed not in South America but in Hawai’i was apparent to anyone who knows their flora! Different biomes do look different from one another, and a few scenes in particular which supposedly took place on the banks of the Amazon were very clearly filmed elsewhere. I know that’s a minor point that won’t have bugged many people, but I found it worth noting.

Happily ever after for the main characters!

So that’s about all I have to say, I think. Jungle Cruise certainly compares to the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean and other fantasy-adventure titles. It was fun, emotional at points, and set up its trio of main characters for a story that was easy enough to follow for kids while still having plenty to offer for adults as well. It stands up well against many adventure films, including classics of the genre like Indiana Jones – which Jungle Cruise was clearly channelling at points!

I had an enjoyable time with Jungle Cruise, and it was a fun way to spend a couple of hours. Whether it will be worth the cost of admission on Disney+ is something everyone will have to decide for themselves, but I think it’ll still be an enjoyable watch in a couple of months’ time. Jungle Cruise presented a fun story that drew inspiration from the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean, yet stayed true to its origins as a theme park attraction. It was a fun ride down the river with Frank, Lily, and MacGregor, and I’m sure I’ll have fun watching the film for a second and third time in the future; it’s definitely one to return to when I’m in the mood for adventure!

Jungle Cruise is available to stream now on Disney+ Premier Access (for a fee). Jungle Cruise is the copyright of Walt Disney Pictures and The Walt Disney Company. Some promotional images courtesy of The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Mandalorian – Season 2 review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Mandalorian Seasons 1-2, including the Season 2 finale and post-credits scene.

As Season 2 of The Mandalorian approached, I debated whether or not to review each episode as they were broadcast. However, with Star Trek: Discovery’s third season running at the same time I concluded that two large reviews every week would probably be too much to manage. So this is what you’re getting instead – the full season reviewed all at once… seven months later.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of The Mandalorian Season 1. Though the series did some things very well, there were – in my subjective opinion, of course – a number of missteps. The worst problem I felt the show had in its first season was the protagonist himself – who was without even a name until the season finale. A combination of factors left me unimpressed with Mandy: sparse dialogue, a monotone, unemotional delivery of the scant lines he did have, the full face helmet making it hard to read any emotion or get any sense of how the character was feeling, and a lack of clarity on his aims and motivations. Mandy felt as though he was doing things because a room full of television writers decided that’s what he was going to do, and when it came to massive life-altering decisions such as betraying his client and the bounty hunters’ guild to save Baby Yoda, there was practically nothing from the man himself to inform that decision. Crucial backstory that should have been communicated sooner was included in the season finale, but by then it was too late. Some stories work well that way – but for a number of reasons this one didn’t.

Oh, Mandy. You came and you gave without taking…
If you got that Barry Manilow reference then congratulations, you’re as old as I am!

The first season also left me underwhelmed by its short runtime. Eight episodes in total, most of which averaged around 30-35 minutes was not a lot to get stuck into; there are children’s shows that run longer than that. Several episodes felt poorly-paced as a result; rushed stories that would have benefitted enormously from simply a few extra minutes to allow events to unfold and better depict the passage of time.

Finally, I felt that Season 1 massively overused elements from Star Wars’ original trilogy to the point that it was drowning in nostalgia. The Rise of Skywalker fell into a similar trap, though that film had a far weaker story under the nostalgic veneer. Elements like the freezing in carbonite of Mandy’s bounties – something which had been presented in The Empire Strikes Back as a terrifyingly unique punishment for Han Solo – or the large amount of time spent with a Jawa sandcrawler all felt cheap and fan-servicey. And that’s before we get to Baby Yoda and the inclusion of the Force in a series billed as “the adventures of a gunslinger far from the reaches of the New Republic.” I hoped The Mandalorian could have left much of this behind and instead told a new, original story in the Star Wars universe, expanding that setting rather than overtreading the same ground.

Bounties frozen in carbonite.

So by the time the first season of The Mandalorian drew to a close I was, at best, underwhelmed. While I appreciated that the series had succeeded in bringing many fans back into the franchise after they’d been left disappointed by the sequel trilogy, on a personal level I was unimpressed with what the show had offered. In between Seasons 1 and 2 came the announcement that Boba Fett would be joining the show in its second season, and as I wrote at the time that news was breaking, I felt it was another backwards step for the show and for Star Wars in general.

Though I did consider reviewing each episode for the website, when I ruled that out for practical reasons I then very seriously debated whether or not to watch Season 2 at all. I don’t like to seek out things I don’t think I’ll enjoy, and having had a disappointing experience with Season 1, and been put off by some of the announcements in the run-up to Season 2, I gave consideration to skipping the show altogether. There are plenty of other things to watch, after all! But curiosity got the better of me, and even though I knew I wouldn’t be reviewing each episode one by one, I thought there was the possibility to talk about the season as a whole, or elements from it, here on the website. And as you can tell by the fact this article exists, I did eventually settle in to watch Season 2.

Baby Yoda.

Runtime was once again problematic. In a short season which consisted of only eight episodes, five were less than forty minutes long, with two of those barely reaching the thirty-minute mark. For a flagship programme on a streaming platform, I find that incredibly difficult to excuse. Though the season premiere approached fifty minutes, none of the other episodes felt sufficiently long, and just as happened last season there were issues which arose from that. The entire runtime of The Mandalorian thus far – including titles and credits – stands at less than ten-and-a-half hours, which is simply not enough for two “full” seasons. It’s actually shorter than a single season of Star Trek: Discovery, and I can’t shake the feeling that Disney has stretched out a single season’s worth of plot over two seasons.

On the other hand, I do appreciate that Disney+ streams The Mandalorian in 4K resolution. It’s also available with HDR (high dynamic range) so there’s no denying that the show is visually beautiful. In addition, Disney+ has reached a far greater worldwide market than it had when the first season was rushed out the door in 2019, meaning that Star Wars’ considerable international fanbase was able to watch the series together. Both of these points are worth other companies taking note of – the Star Trek franchise in particular could learn from that!

Ah yes, the old “you thought he was dead” cliché…

The story of Season 2 is quite odd. Season 1 was, for the most part, a single story with a relatively clear line from point to point. Season 2 feels far more episodic; Mandy takes off on a variety of what can best be described as side-missions, with the long-term aim of reuniting Baby Yoda with his people. The Season 1 finale gave us crucial information about why Mandy wants to do this, and at least from that point of view the story doesn’t feel arbitrary in the way it did for much of last season. But it does certainly jump around a lot! Personally I like episodic television; I think it can be done very well. But The Mandalorian is a show with one overarching story, and several of these episode-long side-quests left the overall show feeling rather rudderless.

If these side-missions had felt important to the story, or perhaps if there had been fewer of them, I don’t think it would have become such a problem. But almost every episode felt like Mandy’s mission had slowed to a crawl as he got sidetracked by job after job. Instead of feeling like integral parts of a greater story, these side-missions became annoying – they got in the way of the main story. Though several of them were interesting enough in their own right, it was the way in which they were set up that caused the problem. It would have been possible to write the season in such a way as to make each of these stories feel like they were part of Mandy’s overall quest; instead they felt like obstacles to his mission and thus they came across as obstacles to the story the show wanted to tell.

Mandy with Bo-Katan on one of his many side-missions.

Modern Star Wars appears to find it impossible to step out of the shadow of its original films, and the greatest evidence of this in Season 2 of The Mandalorian came with the inclusion of Boba Fett. Just like Palpatine’s ham-fisted return dragged down the story of The Rise of Skywalker, Boba Fett inexplicably coming back from the dead likewise harms the story of The Mandalorian, and I don’t see a way around that. His role in the show was so different from the Boba Fett we met in The Empire Strikes Back that he may as well have been a different character, and the story of The Mandalorian Season 2 would have been absolutely no different if this character had been called Engelbert Humperdinck or Crazy Uncle Dennis.

But if I thought Boba Fett’s return was striking the wrong tone for the series, the season finale brought an even worse and far more desperate nostalgia play: the return of Luke Skywalker. There was, for a moment, something visually cool about seeing a Jedi cut through a squad of troopers with ease, but when this character was revealed to be Luke, whatever semblance of originality remained in The Mandalorian evaporated.

The Mandalorian was supposed to be a chance for Star Wars to step away from the Skywalker family.

Does every Star Wars project have to be about Luke Skywalker and the Jedi? Or maybe, one day, can Star Wars be more than that? A big part of the reason why both seasons of The Mandalorian have been so disappointing is that they took a premise that sounded genuinely appealing – “the adventures of a gunslinger far from the reaches of the New Republic” – and turned it into Return of the Jedi II. There is scope to see more of Luke’s adventures in between Return of the Jedi and the sequel trilogy… but I didn’t want that here.

At the risk of repeating myself, Star Wars feels stuck. It’s a franchise trapped by its original incarnation with producers, writers, and corporate leadership unwilling to step away from that and genuinely try something even slightly different. The return of Luke Skywalker and Boba Fett in Season 2 are symptomatic of this, but this problem doesn’t stop there. It extends to the sequel trilogy and to practically all of the recently-announced upcoming projects.

For the second time since 2019, the Star Wars franchise revived a dead character with no explanation.

At least Luke Skywalker, unlike Boba Fett and Palpatine, hadn’t been killed off. His appearance, while irritating, does make a certain kind of sense for the sake of the story, and it’s not a complete non-sequitur in the way those other two characters’ returns were in their respective stories. Even with those caveats, though, I felt it was pretty weak for The Mandalorian to already be relying on Luke Skywalker as a story crutch.

The Star Wars galaxy is one of the best fantasy settings ever brought to life in the entertainment realm. It’s a setting that feels vast and genuinely lived-in in a way that many franchises can only dream of, yet the producers at Lucasfilm and their corporate masters in the Disney boardroom seem dead set on only ever letting us see the same tiny sliver of this potentially wonderful setting over and over and over and over again. The Mandalorian had a chance to do something different, to take Star Wars to new places both literally and thematically. Its retreat to the safe ground of the original trilogy and the warm embrace of Luke Skywalker feels utterly regressive.

Though I freely admit this was a well-staged, action-packed sequence, I maintain that the story didn’t need Luke Skywalker.

There were a couple of visual misses in Season 2, despite the production as a whole being pretty good in terms of CGI and special effects. A few of the practical models and puppets didn’t look quite as good as they had done in Season 1. I’m thinking of the newborn alien-lizard in episode 3 in particular, but there were several other examples of practical effects that didn’t make the cut. Perhaps that’s a consequence of shooting in 4K HDR and viewers having better screens!

The second visual miss is the character of Ahsoka Tano. Though I haven’t seen the animated children’s shows The Clone Wars and Rebels in which Ahsoka Tano was a main character, when she made her live-action debut there was something off about the way she looked, and it took me a moment to figure out what it was. Ahsoka is a Togruta, a species with head-tentacles. Others of this species, and other tentacle-headed species, have been seen in other Star Wars projects since the prequel era. In The Mandalorian, Ahsoka is depicted with her tentacles being a different colour to her face, and not only that but a weird kind of leather-tiara right at the point where the two skin tones meet. The effect of this made it look like she was wearing a weird hat instead of being an alien with a tentacle head, and it was pretty distracting at points!

See what I mean? It looks like she’s wearing a hat!

Now that we’ve talked about the bad, how about some good points? There must be some, right?

Although the numerous disconnected side-missions were distracting, I appreciated the fact that, unlike in the first season, I knew what Mandy’s overall objective was and why he was doing the things he did. Mandy himself showed a little more emotion than in Season 1, and combined with seeing him without his helmet a little more often, that made him start to feel like an actual person for the first time – not just a walking, heavily-armoured plot device.

The dark troopers were neat; I liked their vaguely Vader-inspired aesthetic combined with the fact that they’re droids – something which we could argue ties in thematically with the droid armies of the prequel era. They managed to feel genuinely threatening in a way that many Star Wars villains don’t, and perhaps something about their inhuman nature and red eyes contributed to that. Though the dark troopers didn’t get much screen time, I’m hopeful we’ll see more of them in future.

The dark troopers were intimidating adversaries that I hope we see more of in future Star Wars productions.

The Mandalorian has enjoyed well-designed sets and a wide variety of filming locations that made most of its planets and locales feel different from one another. The only planet which definitely felt like southern California was Tython – the planet with the Jedi “seeing stone.” Compared to the likes of Star Trek: Picard – which relied far too heavily on outdoor filming locations in southern California that all looked alike – this was a success, and shows what’s possible when a big streaming show has a suitably high budget.

Season 2 gave us the briefest of glimpses at the New Republic – the faction which aimed to replace the Empire in the years prior to the rise of the First Order. I would’ve liked to have seen more of the New Republic, but with Rangers of the New Republic in early production, and other spin-offs like The Book of Boba Fett also in the works, perhaps that’s something we’ll get more of in future.

Season 2 gave us a brief glimpse of the New Republic.

Perhaps the most interesting story reveal came in the form of how Moff Gideon wanted to use Baby Yoda. Baby Yoda’s blood or DNA was being used to create Force-sensitive clones, and some of those clones looked an awful lot like the sequel trilogy’s Supreme Leader Snoke. Though this remains officially unconfirmed, my theory is that the clones seen in the fourth episode are supposed to be Snoke.

Snoke, as we learned in one of the worst moments in The Rise of Skywalker, was a clone and a puppet of Palpatine, and The Mandalorian appeared to drop a hint as to how Snoke came into being. Despite that particular storyline going down like a lead balloon in the final act of the so-called Skywalker Saga, it was nevertheless interesting to see it expanded upon here, and it finally provided Moff Gideon with a logical motive for his Baby Yoda obsession.

Is this clone in a tank supposed to be Snoke? It looks that way to me!

Speaking of Moff Gideon, like Star Trek: Picard’s Narek before him, he appears to have vanished in the season finale. Captured by Mandy and his squad when they attacked his ship, Gideon eagerly awaited his liberation by the dark troopers before being knocked unconscious as Luke Skywalker was making his way to the bridge. And then… he dropped out of the story. Did he remain in captivity with Mandy? Did Bo-Katan and the other Mandalorians take him? Was he turned over to Cara and by extension the New Republic for interrogation? Did he escape in the chaos surrounding Luke’s arrival? We just don’t know, and his absence from the season’s closing moments was noteworthy for a story that otherwise did a reasonable job at wrapping things up.

Overall, I’d say that The Mandalorian Season 2 feels like it should’ve been the second half of Season 1. It completed the story that was left unfinished last time, and the short runtime of both seasons makes it feel like fans didn’t really get two full seasons’ worth of action and adventure for their money. There were some solid character moments – Mayfeld coming to terms with his Imperial past being one of the better ones. The season saw Mandy develop as a character – or rather, develop into a character for the first time, and having a protagonist to root for instead of an unemotional helmet-wearing slab of nothing was a transformation the series desperately needed.

Season 2 saw the show’s protagonist grow into a character with understandable motivations.

Despite some decent growth and a main story that was worth pursuing, the disjointed nature of the side-missions meant that the season as a whole seemed to drift. There was direction to its main story, but at the same time that took up basically two of the eight episodes, with the other six comprised largely of fluff; obstacles in Mandy’s way as he attempted to complete his quest.

Season 2 was better than Season 1, but had the two halves of the story been united in a single season instead of being split up like this, perhaps I would’ve come away from the show with a better overall impression. I’m still disappointed that the basic premise of The Mandalorian, which seemed so appealing in 2018-19, hasn’t been fulfilled, and that the show has been overwhelmed by a tidal wave of nostalgia plays.

To me, The Mandalorian will always represent the Star Wars franchise missing an open goal. There was a chance to step away from the Force, the Jedi, and the Skywalker family for the first time, to open up the vast, unexplored Star Wars galaxy and tell some genuinely different and interesting stories. Instead, the show retreated to the same comfortable, overtrodden ground as the films that spawned it, and as a result it’s so much less than it could have been.

The Mandalorian Season 2 is available to stream now on Disney+. The Star Wars franchise – including The Mandalorian and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of LucasFilm and the Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

(When) Will Marvel reset the MCU?

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for multiple films and television series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Avengers Endgame and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

As I was watching The Falcon and the Winter Soldier recently, I got thinking. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (or “MCU” for short) has been running since Iron Man kicked things off in 2008, meaning it’s been in continuous production for more than thirteen years at time of writing. There have been 23 mainline Marvel films released in that time, as well as more than 380 episodes of television across 13 different shows, totalling several hundred hours of viewing. All of this is complicated, and as I’ve said previously, keeping up with Marvel can feel like a full-time job!

None of that means that a franchise needs to go through a reboot, though. Star Trek is going strong after more than half a century and 800+ episodes of television, and aside from the three films in the Kelvin timeline there hasn’t been a resetting of Star Trek; all of its shows and films coexist happily in one setting. But Marvel is arguably different.

2008’s Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

One of the key elements of the MCU’s setting is that the superheroes and supervillains we meet all inhabit the real world right alongside us. This version of Earth is very similar to our own, but it’s one in which superpowers exist. The early films in the MCU depicted the way in which ordinary people came to terms with this idea, and how government agencies and others sought initially to keep things under wraps.

But now that’s all changed, and Marvel’s superheroes are known figures – almost celebrities – in their world. That change may not seem like a big deal, but what it does is chip away at one of the world’s foundational ideas: that superheroes could be among us right now and we just don’t know it. As Marvel’s world has changed and undergone progressively more massive events – culminating, at least thus far, in Thanos’ snap and the resultant disappearance and reappearance of half the world’s population – its original premise of being “the real world plus superheroes” has disappeared.

Sam Wilson (The Falcon) was recognised by members of the public in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Attempts to recreate that are going to be met with challenges that weren’t present in earlier iterations of the MCU. And to be fair to Marvel, thus far the franchise has set the bar when it comes to creating a persistent, connected world. But that world is as much a constraint at this point as it is a highlight, because every story going forward as the MCU enters “Phase Four” has to be able to fit in with the very different world that was created by the events of Infinity War and Endgame.

We saw this as the underlying premise for the main storyline in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. And in that series it worked well, building on the idea that the changes that happened were popular with some people and unpopular with others, as well as showing us glimpses at a world trying to figure out how to get back to “normal” – or what “normal” even means after such life-changing events. That concept can be explored in more detail and will undoubtedly be interesting – but it isn’t what attracted so many fans to the franchise to begin with.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier showed us the first real look at a post-Endgame world.

As the next part of the MCU’s story builds on the events of the last few years, I have two concerns. The first one is that storylines will become convoluted, with any new film or show almost drowning in backstory and lore to the point of being offputting or even incomprehensible for anyone other than a fully up-to-date Marvel superfan.

Secondly, the MCU has to contend with the fact that Avengers Endgame felt like the end of a story. Several principal characters were killed off, and after the events of Infinity War brought the Marvel world to a crushing defeat, Endgame came along and saw the heroes save the day. They made it to their “happily ever after” – and figuring out what comes next is always a major challenge. Following up a monumental story like Endgame risks feeling anticlimactic and small, or worse, repetitive.

Endgame felt like the end of a story.

Having cheered on the Avengers as they saved the universe from Thanos, will fans show up in such numbers for the next supervillain who threatens all life? Endgame was, briefly, the highest-grossing film of all time. Maybe Marvel peaked?

All of this leads me to the crux of this argument: comic books often reset their characters and storylines. After a while, when writers feel they’ve taken the characters and stories as far as they can, or when stories are played out or too convoluted to continue, comic book companies have historically had no problem at all stepping in and just resetting everything. In DC comics – Marvel’s main competitor – the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline in the mid-1980s effectively erased the backstories and past adventures of many superheroes, streamlining the convoluted DC universe into a much simpler form that continues to this day.

Crisis on Infinite Earths was a DC crossover event that reset the storylines of many DC superheroes.

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe rumbles on, getting more complicated and further away from the real world with each iteration, it makes jumping on board for new fans difficult, and it makes keeping up with every project feel like a full-time job; miss the latest show or a couple of films, and suddenly it’s hard to figure out who’s who and what’s what. That’s combined with the fact that some stories are going to feel small or even anticlimactic when compared to the likes of Infinity War and Endgame.

Not long ago I took a look at a number of television shows that ran too long. Shows like Supernatural, Lost, and The Walking Dead were great at first, but after they peaked they stumbled through a period of decline, failing to live up to past successes. I don’t know if Infinity War and Endgame represent the peak of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the best may still be to come. But sooner or later the franchise will hit that peak, and when it does, it seems inevitable to me that a comic book-style reset is on the cards.

The Walking Dead, like many other television shows, peaked. It then entered a period of decline.

The MCU wouldn’t necessarily go back to the drawing board and remake past films. The legacy of characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and the Hulk could pass to new iterations of those characters with new actors taking on lead roles in stories inspired by earlier films, but remaining distinct from them. New backstories could be created, perhaps based on different versions of the superheroes from other editions of their comic books. Marvel has decades of history to draw on, and many superheroes have very different origin stories and personalities than the versions we’ve seen on screen in the last few years.

We’re undoubtedly going to be seeing Marvel and some version of the MCU remain a powerhouse for parent company Disney and the Disney+ streaming service for many years to come – perhaps even decades. I’m not suggesting for a moment that Marvel is simply going to pack up and disappear; there’s too much money on the table for Disney to allow that to happen! But as the MCU continues to expand, taking different characters in different directions, sooner or later that sense of it being convoluted is going to begin to bite.

Marvel Studios will continue to churn out new films and television shows.

I find this to be the case with Star Trek, at least to some extent. When talking to a friend or colleague about Star Trek, if they’re unfamiliar with the franchise it can be hard to know where to start. 800+ episodes and more than five decades of history and lore is intimidating to the point of being offputting, and for some people, simply getting started with Star Trek feels impossible without a guide. New and different iterations of the franchise – like Lower Decks as an animated comedy, or the upcoming Prodigy as a kid-friendly show – can be helpful jumping-on points for newbies, but even then I know the sheer size and scale of Star Trek, as well as its reputation, can be enough to put people off.

Marvel isn’t at that point yet, but it’s getting close. When I was talking to my brother-in-law, who’s a huge Marvel fan, about Infinity War, he recommended that I watch several other films first so that I’d “understand what was going on” better. This sentiment, while well-intentioned by someone who genuinely cared about me getting the most out of a film he liked, can actually have the opposite effect. Marvel is already becoming complicated – too complicated for some casual viewers to drop in and out of comfortably.

A trio of secondary characters in Avengers Infinity War.

Perhaps Disney and Marvel executives feel that, given the size of the MCU’s fandom, they can afford to put off casual viewers. If the fanbase is signing up for Disney+ and buying Marvel merchandise in droves right now, what’s the harm in continuing to make every series and film inextricably tied together? That attitude, if indeed it is prevalent over at Disney, is short-sighted in the extreme.

Any franchise taking such an approach will find its growth stunted, and when existing fans slowly but surely drop out, there won’t be many people lined up to replace them. That’s the danger in trading solely on nostalgia, too – eventually your existing fans either switch off or die off, and if there are fewer people jumping on than there are jumping off, the franchise will sputter and eventually fail. Marvel is undoubtedly a long, long way away from that right now, but every twist and turn in the MCU saga, and every would-be new fan dissuaded from getting started with a convoluted and complicated franchise is a problem for the comic powerhouse.

Does Endgame – briefly the highest-grossing film of all time – represent the peak of Marvel’s success?

Different franchises handle expansion in different ways. In Star Trek, for example, while there can be benefit to be gained from wider knowledge of other iterations of the franchise, for the most part, each television and film series is self-contained. It’s quite possible to be a fan of Deep Space Nine without ever seeing an episode of The Original Series, The Next Generation, or Voyager; a viewer in that position has lost practically nothing, understands basically everything going on, and while they’re missing some background about certain factions and some of early Star Trek history, all of that is explained within the show itself. The same applies to modern Star Trek productions – perhaps with the exception of Picard.

Marvel stands in contrast to that. Every film and show connects in a nakedly obvious way to every other film and show. Characters, factions, themes, and whole storylines cross over from one part of the franchise to another, and while it’s perfectly possible right now to sit down and watch just one or two films or one television show, a viewer who does so is clearly missing out. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier tried to mitigate this as best it could, but even so there’s no denying that a fan who’s seen every Marvel project will have got more out of it than someone who hasn’t.

In contrast to the way the MCU works, a Star Trek fan can watch just one series in the franchise without missing out on too much or getting lost with themes and stories that cross over.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one big, interconnected world. That is its strength, as we’ve seen Marvel films bring in audience numbers and a level of financial success that are quite literally unprecedented, as well as facilitating the transformation of comic book superheroes from nerdy niche to mainstream blockbusters. But that interconnectedness may yet prove to be a weakness, too, if more and more viewers find that new iterations of the MCU are too dense and require too much prior knowledge to properly enjoy.

Based on all of that, it seems inevitable to me that Disney and Marvel will eventually hit the reset button. Whether it happens in five years or fifteen, I think there will eventually be a resetting of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How it will work, and whether it will revitalise the franchise and propel it to further success in future are all open questions, and we won’t know for sure until it happens. Watch this space!

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective broadcaster, distributor, production company, etc. The Marvel brand – including the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers Endgame, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and all other titles mentioned above – is the copyright of The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – miniseries review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, as well as for other titles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Avengers Endgame.

I’m a little late to the party on this one; The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premiered back in late March. But it’s taken me till now to get around to watching it, so this review is just going to have to be “better late than never!” Superheroes and comics aren’t really my thing, and thus it takes something a little more down-to-earth to really pique my interest in the genre. Some Marvel stuff has been okay – I liked the first couple of seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for example.

2019’s Avengers Endgame had a big impact on the Marvel cinematic universe, killing off major characters and shaking up the superheroes’ world in a significant way. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was my first point of contact with this post-Endgame environment, and going in I was at least a little curious to see how the miniseries would respond to those major changes.

Sam Wilson – a.k.a. the Falcon.

Having decided to skip the very weird-looking WandaVision earlier in the year, and not being 100% caught up on every Marvel film or television project, I have no doubt that I missed some in-jokes and references that bigger fans would have understood. But a show like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier appealed to me for precisely the reasons something like WandaVision didn’t – it looked to be a fairly straight-laced action series.

So that was my mindset going in, and you know what? It was perfectly entertaining action fare. A little over-the-top at points, but nothing too immersion-breaking. The miniseries format definitely suited The Falcon and the Winter Soldier; six episodes was great, and watchable over the course of a couple of evenings, but I wouldn’t have wanted a full fifteen- or twenty-episode season. That might’ve been too much!

James “Bucky” Barnes – a.k.a. the Winter Soldier.

Though there were plenty of superhero and comic elements in the miniseries, for the most part it stayed true to its action-oriented premise, with leads Sam and Bucky getting into scrapes as they teamed up to take on a group of terrorists. Though there were mentions of some of the wackier elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for the most part the main story of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier could have worked without any of the superhero trappings. Simply swapping out superheroes for generic action heroes wouldn’t have ruined the story – and perhaps it’s for that reason that I enjoyed it!

The interplay between the two leads was one of the main draws of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. And in that sense it was a risk – both of these characters were very much secondary supporting players in their earlier appearances. Giving them a centre-stage moment could’ve backfired on one or both of them, yet they managed to share the limelight without one overshadowing the other. Both characters bonded over their past relationships with Captain America, but each brought something different to the table as well. The unexpected chemistry between Anthony Mackie’s Sam and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky went a long way to making the show a success.

The interaction between the two main characters was the highlight of the series.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier attempted to raise the stakes by crossing over into dramatic territory, focusing on the personal and family lives of its principal characters. Though some of this could feel a little forced at times, what it succeeded in doing was showing the post-Endgame world outside of the limited environment of superheroes. Many smaller interactions – from Bucky’s attempt at dating to Sam and his sister’s visit to a bank – were changed and defined by Thanos’ snap and its aftermath.

Since its inception more than a decade ago, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has strived to create a persistent world. The monumental events of one story aren’t forgotten in another, and the setting doesn’t simply reset itself in between iterations. This is a double-edged sword in some ways, as it can feel like keeping up with Marvel is almost a full-time job given how many productions there have been. But The Falcon and the Winter Soldier made a creditable effort to strike the right balance between being part of that broader ongoing story while being understandable to more casual viewers. There were elements from past Marvel outings that played into the story, and fans more familiar with those films than I am almost certainly got more out of it. But the series does try to be self-contained, and many of the character introductions and story elements don’t require background knowledge as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier does its best to tee them up. It’s not perfect, but that’s part and parcel of jumping into a series which is one part of a broader story.

There were plenty of callbacks and references to past Marvel outings.

The introduction of a “new” Captain America was interesting. In the second episode, both Sam and Bucky have to contend with this notion, and the way they both react is genuinely interesting, and the series explored it well given its limited timeframe. Though I have to say I felt Captain America’s burgeoning villainy was obvious even from the moment he was introduced, setting that moment aside, the way Sam and Bucky reacted to someone taking on a role pioneered by their friend was emotional – and at the same time an interesting look at the way mantles like Captain America are passed from individual to individual in comic books.

I’m not much of a comic fan, as already mentioned. But in comic books, especially those which have been running for a long time, it’s not unusual for superhero roles to be passed down to new characters. In Marvel, for example, there are multiple individuals who have been Spider-Man, with these roles occasionally being recast or reworked as new comic books, series, and storylines are developed. To fans who’ve become attached to the original incarnation, sometimes these changes are met with controversy, and though The Falcon and the Winter Soldier doesn’t dive into this kind of fandom critique in depth, elements of the Captain America storyline seemed to give that notion more than a passing glance. Marvel has come in for criticism in recent years from fans unhappy with new or evolving superheroes, and it felt like this was perhaps a nod to that controversy.

Sebastian Stan as Bucky.

Laying atop that layer of subtext, though, were the stories of two very different men who were both emotionally invested in Steve Rogers and Captain America. Seeing someone new step into those shoes was hard for both Sam and Bucky – and laid the groundwork for their unlikely bond, both in terms of the way the narrative played out and in terms of their personal connection.

In the story of Captain America himself – John Walker – we see a man struggling to live up to an inherited legacy. This is something many folks have some experience with – being unjustly compared to someone older, more experienced, or even just a more successful family member. The feeling of a responsibility being overwhelming – and not knowing how to deal with that – as well as a degree of so-called “imposter syndrome” were present in the character as well. Walker embodies the worst aspects of how to respond to such a situation, but the way in which it manifests and slowly builds over a couple of episodes, beginning with smaller insecurities before escalating, is strangely relatable. Credit must go to actor Wyatt Russell, who put in a stellar performance in the role.

Wyatt Russell’s Captain America was a different and interesting take.

Art and entertainment reflect the times in which they were created, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier had distinct racial themes that mirror events in the United States over the past few years. I’m not the right person to comment on such narrative elements, but I would say that they didn’t overshadow the series. Considering the way race relations in the United States have progressed (or should that be “regressed?”) over the last few years, it’s not surprising to see racial themes making their way into entertainment and popular culture.

Race relations and America’s chequered past wasn’t the only political theme, as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier also looked at issues of immigration and particularly the way refugees are welcomed – or ignored. Indeed, the show as a whole was more politically charged than I expected going in. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and the way The Falcon and the Winter Soldier set up its refugee theme was very much fictionalised – these are people who “returned” following the events of Endgame. As I often say when it comes to the Star Trek franchise, using a fictional lens to look at real-world issues can be both powerful and effective, and it was both here. The moral ambiguity in Karli’s fight, and the way even the protagonists could empathise with her goals, was handled impressively.

Falcon actor Anthony Mackie and Sarah Wilson actress Adepero Oduye on set with director Kari Skogland (centre).
Photo Credit: Chuck Zlotnick for Marvel Studios

There were certainly some very contrived moments as the narrative rumbled on – the trio’s lives being saved in Madripoor by utter chance being just one example – but not so many that I felt the integrity of the overall story was too badly damaged. Such things are par for the course when dealing with both comics and action flicks, after all!

The moment in the fifth episode where Sam cashes in family favours felt like a storyline lifted almost directly from 1946 Christmas film It’s A Wonderful Life – an homage I never thought I’d find in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. It was certainly a contrivance, but as above it wasn’t an especially heinous one. Some contrivances are more easily shrugged off than others, but suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite when setting foot in a fictional world. As long as a story isn’t overflowing with such things, I’m content to let them slide.

The Falcon in flight.

Filming locations and sets used in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier were impressively diverse. I was concerned upon seeing the opening mission to “Tunisia” that we were going to see an over-reliance on one or two environments being recycled, but for a series that took its protagonists to different parts of the United States and the world, the series did a solid job with most of its settings; there were genuine differences between the locales visited – the kind of thing one might expect to see from a blockbuster action film. Last year I had criticised Star Trek: Picard for its samey filming locations, so it was great to see what Marvel and Disney can do when they throw their money around!

Erin Kellyman, who took on the challenging role of budding revolutionary Karli, put in a solid performance. I wasn’t especially impressed with her when I’d seen her in Solo: A Star Wars Story a couple of years ago, but when given a broader role, one with greater range, she did a perfectly creditable job. I’m not sure that the whole “the villain is a young girl” revelation still works as a twist or storytelling shock, though – just as it didn’t when Kellyman had a similar moment in Solo. That aside, Karli made for an interesting adversary – someone whose methods may be extreme, but whose overall philosophy is difficult to condemn. Comic books often deal in black-and-white: virtuous superheroes who want to save the world and flat-out evil supervillains who have dastardly ambitions. Karli was, in that sense, a breath of fresh air, even when compared to the likes of Thanos.

Karli was the main adversary for the duo to tackle.

One storyline that I felt didn’t work very well was the decision to bring back the random villain’s henchman from the opening act of the first episode to be a kind of supervillain with a grudge against Sam in the final part of the last episode. This nameless character had no impact on the entire narrative aside from being a goon to outsmart to set up Sam’s character, and his return just didn’t feel like it mattered in any meaningful way – most significantly for Sam, but also for the character himself. Revenge is a motivation of sorts, but as a mercenary who seems to have only been in it for the money, and a one-dimensional mercenary at that, I just didn’t buy it. It was a contrivance, really, and a way to bring in another hurdle and a villain to be dispatched.

So to wrap things up, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was an enjoyable romp. I’d certainly rank it as one of the better Marvel projects that I’ve seen, and while I won’t be diving into every new film and show that the comic powerhouse churns out, I’m sure I’ll keep an eye out for other similar projects in future – including a second season, which may or may not be coming next year.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is available to stream now on Disney+. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – along with other films, series, and properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Marvel Studios and The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Have we seen an unstoppable shift away from the cinema?

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been the long-term closure of many cinemas (movie theaters for my American readers). Aside from a short respite last July and August, most cinemas here in the UK have been shut since March 2020 – for well over a year now. Some, like a local independent cinema near me, have had no choice but to close permanently, even with the end of lockdown seemingly in sight. Even when cinemas are able to reopen, limits on capacity due to social distancing, the general unease among many people about sitting in a room with dozens of strangers with the pandemic still ongoing, and most significantly, the lack of major film releases in the near term will – in my opinion, at least – most likely mean it will be a long time before things are able to get back to normal.

But will things ever get back to normal? That’s the question I want to ask today.

Will empty cinemas be full again one day?

In the early days of the pandemic, most films scheduled for release in spring or summer 2020 were simply postponed; their release dates pushed back by a few months so that they could be released to full crowds when lockdowns were lifted in their key markets. But as the pandemic has dragged on and on, film studios have begun to switch the way they release many big titles – opting to send them to streaming platforms rather than wait.

Without Remorse was originally supposed to get a theatrical release, but premiered on Amazon Prime Video instead. Raya and the Last Dragon went directly to Disney+. Then there are titles like Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Mulan, The Little Things, Godzilla vs. Kong, Bill & Ted Face The Music, News of the World, and Tom & Jerry. Upcoming titles such as Jungle Cruise, Space Jam: A New Legacy, Black Widow, Malignant, and A Quiet Place II are all going to either be released directly on streaming or with a limited theatrical run at the same time as going straight to streaming.

Animated film Raya and the Last Dragon went straight to Disney+ earlier in the year.

Is this a one-time thing, purely caused by the pandemic? And if it is, will audiences be happy to return to cinemas once the pandemic has cleared and they can fully reopen? If you’d asked me in March or April last year, I’d have said yes to both questions without hesitation. But now I’m not so sure.

There are a lot of advantages to streaming compared to going to the cinema, and as more and more people come to see those advantages, the cinema becomes a less-attractive option in contrast. This trend is not new – cinema attendance has declined a lot from where it was a few decades ago, and with the rise of high-quality television series which can rival and even surpass films in many cases, this is a reckoning that cinemas have had coming for a while. The pandemic has accelerated that to light-speed, but the trend has been going in this direction for a while.

Paramount+ is one of many competing streaming platforms that have arguably benefited from the forced closure of cinemas during the pandemic.

So what are the supposed advantages of at-home streaming? The first has to be convenience. Viewers can watch what they want on their own schedule, with the ability to pause a film to take a phone call or go to the bathroom, watching before or after work, or even late at night. It’s possible to watch with subtitles, audio description, director commentaries, and even watch in other languages. Most folks are more comfortable in their own homes than they are in a cinema chair – even the nicest cinema seats aren’t as pleasant as a comfy armchair or couch. There are no distractions from (other people’s) noisy kids, people munching popcorn, or idiots on their phones. You don’t have to sit through half an hour of adverts and trailers to get to the film. If you’re using a phone or tablet it’s possible to watch on the go, or literally anywhere. And some of the things we might’ve considered to be disadvantages a few years ago – such as screen size, resolution, and audio quality – are all easily surmountable even for folks on a limited budget.

Obviously not all of these points apply in every single case, but as a general rule, as screens get bigger and better, the need to watch something in the cinema is dropping. The old adage that a particular film was “better in the cinema” or “made for cinemas” no longer applies in many cases.

Amazon Prime Video have snapped up a number of films that couldn’t get a theatrical release this year – including Without Remorse.

I have a relatively inexpensive 4K television that doesn’t have OLED or HDR or any of those higher-end features, just a bog-standard LED set. But this model, even when I was buying it a few years ago, only started at a 40-inch screen size, with sizes going all the way up to 60″ or 65″. Nowadays, 85″ and 90″ sets are on the market and within reach of many consumers. Sound bars and speakers that put out fantastic quality audio are equally affordable, with prices dropping massively from where they had been when 4K and large screens were new. Even on my cheap and cheerful set, films look great. And if you sit reasonably close, it really does feel akin to being in the cinema – in the comfort of my own home.

It’s difficult, in my opinion, for cinemas to compete on price or quality. Even the more expensive streaming platforms, like Netflix, cost around £10-12 per month. It’s been a while since I was able to go to the cinema – health issues prevent me from doing so – but the last time I was able to go, £10 wouldn’t even stretch to two tickets. For that money you get one month’s worth of access to a massive library of titles – including many brand-new ones and Netflix originals made specially for the platform.

Large, good-quality television screens are increasingly affordable and offer a cinema-like experience at home.

In the late ’40s and ’50s, when my parents were young, going to the cinema was a frequent outing. You’d see an A- and B-movie, as well as perhaps a newsreel or something else, and it would feel like good value. Since the early 20th Century, going to the cinema on at least a weekly basis was a big part of many peoples’ lives – but things have been changing, slowly, for quite a while.

For at least the last couple of decades, going to the cinema is something most folks have viewed as an occasional treat rather than a regular outing. The price and value of a cinema ticket – and the additional extras like drinks and snacks – have shot up in relation to earnings, while at the same time the number of advertisements and trailers have also increased. Though the cinema still has a place in many folks’ lives, that place had been slipping long before the pandemic arrived. In the ’90s and 2000s, the blame for that lay with cable and satellite television channels, including many dedicated film channels. Nowadays, the blame has shifted to streaming.

Netflix has picked up a lot of subscribers in the past year.

Many film studios are keen to play their part in this trend, too. Sharing a big chunk of their profits with cinema chains and operators was never something they were wild about, which is why we’re seeing more and more studios and production companies either partnering with big streaming platforms or else trying to launch their own. Paramount+ exists for this reason, as do Disney+, HBO Max, and many others. These companies don’t care in the slightest about the fate of cinemas – except insofar as they can use them to turn a profit. When the pandemic meant that wasn’t possible, many companies happily jumped ship and released their films digitally instead.

Though I know a lot of people who have told me they’re keen to get back to the cinema as soon as possible, when I probed most of them further and asked how often they would go to the cinema pre-pandemic, or what films they were most excited to see at the cinema next, all of the answers I got back up everything I’ve been saying. Most folks go to the cinema infrequently at best, and while they’ve missed some of the social aspects of the “cinema experience,” they certainly haven’t missed the adverts, loud seat neighbours, and hassle. Streaming, while not as glamorous or exciting in some ways, is a more enjoyable experience in others.

Some people have missed every aspect of being at the cinema… but many haven’t!

I know I have to acknowledge my own bias here. As someone whose disability prevents them going to the cinema, I’d be quite happy if every film I want to watch from now on comes directly to streaming! On a purely selfish level, that’s something I’m fine with. And while I stand by the fact that the trend away from the cinema in a general sense is real and demonstrable, the pandemic probably hasn’t killed the entire concept of the cinema stone-dead. Nor would that be a good thing. Many cinemas offer more than just the latest blockbusters, with classic films, recorded theatre plays and ballet performances, and other such events. In the rural area where I live, the idea of being able to see something like the Royal Ballet is beyond a lot of people due to the distances involved. But local cinemas occasionally show things like ballets, operas, and Shakespeare plays, bringing a different kind of culture and entertainment to the region. Cinemas are also big local employers, and it’s nothing to celebrate when a local business is forced to close.

So most cinemas will eventually re-open. But the question I asked is still pertinent, because I don’t know whether they’ll see pre-pandemic numbers of visitors for a very long time – if at all. The pandemic has forced the hand of film studios and distributors, and the result has been an uptick in the number of subscribers to streaming platforms. Many folks have tried streaming for the first time, and while there will always be holdouts, people who proclaim that it really is “better in the cinema,” I think a lot of people have been surprised at how enjoyable streaming a film at home can be, and how favourably it can compare to the cinema experience.

Many people haven’t missed the “cinema experience” as much as they expected.

A big home theatre setup is no longer necessary. With a relatively inexpensive – but still large – television set and maybe a sound bar or pair of satellite speakers, many people can have a truly cinema-like experience in their own living rooms. And a lot of people who’ve tried it for the first time, prompted by lockdown, may have no plans to return to the cinema any time soon – or if they do, they’ll be making fewer trips.

In my opinion, this is something that has the potential to continue to build over time. As screens continue to improve, and as more people eschew the cinema in favour of staying in, more films will go direct to streaming because companies will see more success and more money in it. Fewer films will end up in cinemas exclusively, so fewer people will go. And the cycle will continue!

Even if I’m wrong on that final point, I do believe that we’ve already seen a slow move away from cinemas in the pre-pandemic years. The pandemic came along and blew the lid off that, and while there will be a return once things settle down, at-home streaming is here to stay. It benefits viewers and companies – the only folks who are going to lose out are the cinema chains themselves. I’m not saying it’s a positive thing necessarily, although it does stand to benefit me in some respects, nor am I advocating for it. But when I look at the way things have been going over the past few years, and add the pandemic’s disruption into the mix, I really do feel that we’re seeing a big move away from the cinema in favour of at-home streaming.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, distributor, production company, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Star Wars Biomes is a cute and clever way to spend twenty minutes

Released to mark Star Wars day, Star Wars Biomes is a short film that’s simultaneously something different yet very nostalgic. A silent tour over several locations from the original trilogy, prequel era, sequels, and even The Mandalorian, Star Wars Biomes was not the sort of thing I was expecting from the franchise. It’s “slow TV” – something to watch for relaxation or to have on in the background while doing something else, and it’s unusual for a major franchise to produce something like that.

In other ways – and you probably know what I’m going to say if you’ve read some of my recent critiques of the overall direction of the Star Wars franchise – this was Star Wars once again retreating to largely safe, well-trodden ground. The short film only visited planets we’ve previously seen in other iterations of the franchise, and made no attempt to branch out and look at anywhere new. But you know what? On this occasion, with this unusual short film, I think that’s okay.

The Millennium Falcon departs Ahch-To in Star Wars Biomes.

A work like this is 100% about the visuals. And on that front, Star Wars Biomes largely delivered. The animation and CGI work was streets ahead of many high-budget television shows of recent times, and far beyond anything the prequel trilogy or special edition edits of the original trilogy were capable of. For example, I would say that Star Wars Biomes showed off the single best representation of Tatooine’s twin suns that has ever been put to screen.

There were a couple of moments in the eighteen-minute broadcast where I felt the CGI strayed into looking a little unrealistic and video-gamey, but generally speaking the animators did a good job. The vistas – or I suppose we should really be calling them “biomes!” – looked fantastic, even stunning in places, and that’s exactly what a short film of this nature aimed to deliver.

I don’t think Tatooine’s twin suns have ever looked this good!

When I first heard the name “Star Wars Biomes,” I wondered if we were going to get something akin to a nature documentary, looking at some of the wildlife or flora of the visited locations. But it was clear from the start that that’s not what the objective was! That’s fine, and it’s not the purpose of a review to say “well I wish it had been a totally different kind of film,” so I’m happy with what was put to screen. That being said, a pseudo-documentary looking at galactic flora and fauna would be an interesting project – as I said when I proposed something similar for Star Trek a little while ago!

Of the locations visited in Star Wars Biomes, I would suggest that the salt-crusted surface of Crait was perhaps the boldest choice. There were only six planets that Star Wars Biomes took us to, and considering the incredibly controversial nature of The Last Jedi, picking one that was featured prominently in that film was very daring on the part of whoever was making that decision! I think we even saw the crashed ski-speeders of Finn and Rose, which was a plot point that was not popular with many fans. Perhaps that’s Star Wars sticking up a cheeky middle finger as if to say “The Last Jedi is still canon!” But perhaps I’m reading too much into it. I still think it was a bold choice, regardless of the behind-the-scenes reasoning!

The crashed ski-speeders on Crait.

Hoth looked beautiful in all of its snow-capped glory. I do love wintery, snowy scenes, and Star Wars Biomes rendered the snow on Hoth perfectly. Moving like a helicopter (or drone, I suppose) the camera panned across the snowy landscape, and spotted a probe droid – which made the familiar, slightly menacing whirring noise it made in The Empire Strikes Back. We also saw AT-AT walkers, and I think it was the first time seeing them from so high up or at such an angle. Both the droid and walkers contributed to a sense of nostalgia, but at the same time it felt new.

As Star Wars Biomes wrapped up its time on Hoth, we got the first of several typical Star Wars “wipes” – the transitions from one scene to another that the Star Wars franchise has always done with a particular flair! This was new in the ’70s, but modern films have largely left this style of wipe behind, with the result being that it feels unique to Star Wars – even though you can find similar transitions in other films of the original trilogy era.

AT-AT walkers seen on Hoth.

Tatooine is up next, and as already mentioned, its twin suns look amazing. Rendered to look similar to our own sun, the shot at the end as the camera panned up was really stunning. Sand, like snow, is more or less a single colour and texture, so perhaps the Tatooine section of Star Wars Biomes relies more on other visual elements – droids, skeletons, Jawas, and a landspeeder – in order to retain visual interest. It was a well-done segment, though.

After Tatooine, Star Wars Biomes heads to Sorgan – a planet whose name I had to Google! This is the planet with the rustic village that was visited in The Mandalorian, and we saw the Razor Crest flying in as the camera panned overhead. Sorgan was the first point in Star Wars Biomes where I felt the CGI – in this case used for some of the huts in the village – strayed from being 100% realistic into video game territory, at least toward the end as the camera zoomed in and got closer. It wasn’t bad by any means, but as we got closer to the village it was possible to tell it was CGI.

The village on Sorgan.

Crait, as mentioned, was the boldest choice in my opinion. The camera angle used here was odd, looking down at a 90-degree angle the entire time. I kept waiting for the camera to pan, showing us more of the surface of Crait, but it never did. The way the vehicles depicted left red trails in the salty surface of Crait was neat, though, and very well done – even if a couple of the large walkers depicted looked a tad video gamey!

Mustafar came next, and was probably my favourite segment. The lava fields were rendered beautifully, and Darth Vader’s castle looked suitably menacing, dominating the scene. Mustafar is, of course, the planet from Revenge of the Sith where Vader was badly injured. A shuttle and a couple of TIE fighters were seen during this segment, too, and they were done well.

Darth Vader’s castle on Mustafar.

Finally we came to Ahch-To, the planet Luke travelled to to hide away, as seen in all three sequel films. We saw a couple of porgs in flight – but not up close – and at Luke’s island, the Millennium Falcon taking off which was neat to see. The island looked like it might’ve been a real shot taken from the Ahch-To filming location off the coast of Ireland, but it could just be very well-made CGI – at this point it isn’t always easy to tell! One CGI misfire during this segment came with a sea monster – the way it breached the surface then sank back beneath the waves didn’t make the right movements on the surface of the water. I know that’s a nitpick!

So that was Star Wars Biomes. Whether you sit and watch it intently – as I did – or put it on in the background as a screensaver, I think it’s worth a look. It’s a bit of fun, and a cute and clever way to celebrate Star Wars without going all-out on a movie marathon! Generally I think it was well-made, with just a couple of moments where the CGI was imperfect. It’s the kind of short film you can put on while you relax and unwind, and its short runtime means it doesn’t feel like a huge commitment.

I had fun with Star Wars Biomes, and I daresay I’ll come back to it again at some point to take another look and see if I can spot anything I missed! It’s the kind of thing I can see myself putting on in the background on a loop while I’m doing something, or even if I have people over (once coronavirus is over and done with). If you decide to check it out, I hope you enjoy Star Wars Biomes as much as I did.

Star Wars Biomes is available to stream now on Disney+. The Star Wars franchise – including all properties and titles mentioned above – is the copyright of Lucasfilm and The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Raya and the Last Dragon – a review

The first part of this review contains no major spoilers for Raya and the Last Dragon. The second part does, however, and the end of the spoiler-free section is clearly marked.

Raya and the Last Dragon is an expensive film right now, available only via Disney’s “premiere access” feature on Disney+ for £20 in the UK or $30 in the United States. My review of the film has to be seen through that lens, because it’s not simply a title you can watch as part of your regular Disney+ subscription – though it will surely become available on Disney+ in the coming months. If Raya and the Last Dragon follows the same path as last year’s Mulan, it may be available to stream as part of Disney+ in the summer.

So the big question is this: can I recommend it for £20? Or is Raya and the Last Dragon a title that you’re better off waiting for?

I’m kind of an impatient person! And because Raya and the Last Dragon was one of the titles I was most looking forward to this year, for me it was unquestionably worth it. Raya and the Last Dragon is a great animated film that easily hits the highs of other recent Disney projects. I don’t mind paying a little extra for that under the circumstances – it’s about the price of two or three cinema tickets, so if you consider it from that point of view, it doesn’t seem too bad.

But there’s no getting away from this price discussion, and I want to briefly add my two cents. On the one hand, it can seem unreasonable for Disney to insist on an additional £20 on top of the monthly fee for Disney+. If it were an either/or case it would perhaps sit better with folks, but being asked to either pay £20 on top of your £8 a month, or to have to sign up at £8 on top of the £20 to see Raya and the Last Dragon certainly feels anti-consumer, and I get why folks feel that way.

Raya and the Last Dragon was originally supposed to get a theatrical release.

I’m sick to the back teeth of companies using the pandemic as an excuse for everything, and there’s no denying that Disney could simply have waited and released Raya and the Last Dragon in cinemas either later this year or next year if needs be. That’s the approach taken by Eon and MGM for the upcoming James Bond film No Time To Die, which has been delayed for well over a year. However, despite all of that, I like this method of distribution, and I think we’re seeing the beginnings of a shift away from theatrical releases in favour of streaming.

My health and disability means that I can no longer go to the cinema, so from my selfish perspective I love the idea of bringing more titles straight to streaming platforms, and on an occasional basis for a big release that I’m very keen to see, paying a little extra to watch it is no big deal. As television screens get better (and bigger) the so-called “cinema experience” offers less and less value anyway, and being able to watch a film on one’s own schedule, with the ability to pause, rewind, take breaks, etc. is so much nicer than going to the cinema in many ways. So in my opinion, bringing Raya and the Last Dragon to Disney+ for a fee is acceptable. Would I have preferred it to be included in the price? Of course. But these projects are hugely expensive, and recouping some of that money is going to be necessary for Disney, so I understand why they’ve done it this way. It feels like a compromise – not one that everyone will love, but one I find acceptable.

Young Raya during the film’s opening moments.

Before we get into the main section of the review, here are my spoiler-free thoughts.

I would describe the animation as competent. Nothing blew me away with how amazingly detailed it was – like the snow in Frozen or the oceans in Moana did – but there was nothing wrong with it and it was in line with other modern Disney films from the last decade or so. Considering a significant portion of the work on Raya and the Last Dragon was done remotely, that’s pretty good in my opinion.

The story was surprisingly heavy and emotional for a kids’ film, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. In the first few minutes it was perhaps a little fast-paced for my liking, dropping quite a few characters, locations, and themes all at once. But after that fast beginning it settled in, and followed Raya on her quest at a reasonable pace that wasn’t overwhelming. There were light-hearted and comedic moments, plenty of different environments for Raya and her friends to explore that were all based on different parts of southeast Asia, and the vocal performances were outstanding. Aside from the credits there weren’t any musical numbers, and that was something I wasn’t expecting. The score was great, and had an Asian-inspired theme to it, but after the likes of Moana and Frozen in recent years saw huge success with their songs, I was expecting at least a couple.

So that’s my non-spoiler summary.

This is the end of the spoiler-free section of the review. Expect spoilers from here on out!

Raya and the Last Dragon began with an immediate dump of exposition, explaining the backstory of the broken land of Kumandra – based loosely on southeast Asia. As indicated above, this opening section of the film was quite fast-paced, almost rushed, and introduced characters, themes, magic, locations, and backstory all at once. As I sat through those opening minutes I was hoping that the rest of the film would slow down, and luckily it did after a few minutes. That makes the opening, unfortunately, the weakest part of the film overall.

Raya and the Last Dragon follows the titular Raya as she seeks to save the fractured world of Kumandra, whose people have split up into five competing, squabbling, and warring lands in the aftermath of the disappearance of the dragons. But saving the world is just a side-quest for Raya, whose real objective for much of the film is to save her “ba” – her father, and the chief of her people. Yes, that makes Raya a Disney Princess!

Chief Benja, Raya’s father.

The story takes Raya to all five of the different lands, and each was based on a different area of southeast Asia. We spent just enough time in each land to take in the setting, but I think that taking a few minutes more to really get a feel for each – or perhaps the film including one fewer land – might’ve improved things. This is really the only point of criticism, because each of the lands was unique and richly detailed. At first I wasn’t sold on using English names for these places: Fang, Heart, Spine, Tail, and Talon. However, the metaphor made the ultimate payoff to the film’s story more easily understood, especially for younger viewers. The point of these names was to hammer home, at every opportunity, that the people of Kumandra were artificially divided; that the resolution to their problems would be in learning to trust one another and come together. Like the parts of an animal can’t function independently, neither can the peoples of Kumandra. Each land, represented by a piece of the dragon, brings something that the others lack, and working together is the only way.

This theme carried over into the film’s climactic final battle, as each of the friends Raya had made along the way – each from a different land – stood together and used the last of the dragon gem’s magic to help the people of Fang. This metaphor was certainly omnipresent, but didn’t feel laboured. The film knew, from the very beginning when Chief Benja introduced us to the idea of reunifying the fractured land, that this was the direction of the story. The names of the lands fed into that, as did the way Raya assembled her motley crew from different places.

Raya’s friends work together to help the people of Fang.

At time of writing, there’s a renewed focus on anti-Asian hate and hate crimes in the United States. I’m not an American, but I’d like to offer my perspective on how a film like Raya and the Last Dragon fits at this moment. We often hear criticism of Disney for taking legends and stories and twisting them, “Disney-fying” them to sanitise them for a western audience. And you know what? Raya and the Last Dragon, just like other Disney films based on folklore and legend, is Disney-fied. But there’s incredible value in representation, even in this simplified style, and with Disney’s unique reach that extends across borders, cultures, and ages, Raya and the Last Dragon offers representation to an under-represented group of people in cinema, animation, and the cultural mainstream.

We could devote an entire essay to debunking the argument that “representation and diversity for their own sakes are negative things,” but in the context of this film, coming at this particular moment, let me just say that positive representation is important. It’s important that people of all backgrounds feel included, and being depicted positively in mainstream entertainment – particularly in something as significant as a Disney animated film – is an historic moment. Raya and the Last Dragon draws on the mythology and folklore of southeast Asia in the same way as Moana drew on Polynesian legend, and it’s a net positive for people of Asian heritage to see such representation.

Raya and the Last Dragon presents a positive depiction of Asia and Asian people at an important moment.

Kelly Marie Tran is also uniquely positioned at this moment. Tran suffered horrible racist and sexist abuse online in late 2017 through 2018, and I’m so pleased to see her back in such an inspiring role. Raya and the Last Dragon is a story about bringing people together, learning to trust and overcome hatred, and as someone who has, sadly, experienced hatred firsthand, there’s something even more powerful in knowing who it is bringing Raya to life through an outstanding voice performance.

I don’t like to get “political,” but the release of Raya and the Last Dragon happened to coincide with a significant moment for people of Asian heritage in the United States, and I felt it important to at least acknowledge that.

Kelly Marie Tran voices the character of Raya.
Picture Credit: Jimmy Kimmel Live via YouTube.

In the west, we usually associate dragons with fire. Fire-breathing dragons are both a part of European folklore and have gone on to become a trope in fantasy fiction, so it was very interesting – and more than a little unusual – to see a water dragon as the main focus in a dragon-themed film. This is, of course, a reflection of the film’s Asian-inspired story, as was the design of Sisu herself.

Continuing the theme of breaking with common western depictions of dragons, Sisu is presented in an Asian style – a long body, no wings, and covered in fur. Sisu’s design is a Disney take on that concept, blunting its sharp edges and making it child-friendly. And it worked. I daresay Sisu toys and teddies will become a major part of Disney’s merchandise this year and beyond!

Sisu had a great design, inspired by Asian folklore but with a Disney twist.

The other character with a cute design was Tuk Tuk, and right from the opening moments of the film it was clear he’d been designed to be the cute animal sidekick that so many Disney protagonists have. Tuk Tuk worked best in the film’s prologue, after which he’d grown large and basically served as a form of transportation for Raya and Sisu, though the design remained largely the same.

With Tuk Tuk I think we can point to one of the few examples of Raya and the Last Dragon stumbling, at least somewhat. Aside from having a cute (and merchandisable) design, Tuk Tuk was clearly set up for some light-heartedness; some comic relief. Yet the introduction of Noi (the baby) and her three monkeys largely switches the comic relief focus away from him. It’s not a case of “too many characters,” but rather that the film didn’t really know what to do with two sets of comic relief characters. There was less for Tuk Tuk to do as a result.

Raya and Tuk Tuk near the beginning of the film.

The only other point of criticism I have comes at one of the film’s climactic moments. Raya and her friend-turned-nemesis Namaari are involved in a standoff. Namaari planned to take Sisu and the dragon gem pieces back to Fang on her mother’s orders, and Raya drew her sword to stop her. As Namaari points her crossbow at Sisu, Sisu asks Raya to trust that she knows what she’s doing – but Raya doesn’t, and the result is that Namaari’s crossbow fires, killing Sisu.

This moment was meant to show that Raya is the one who bears most responsibility for Sisu’s death; that if she had trusted Sisu, as Sisu asked her to, Namaari was about to stand down. But it simply wasn’t clear that that was the case, and it would be easy for a casual viewer – or a child, and this is a children’s film, after all – to simply see this moment as Namaari shooting Sisu.

Who was really responsible for pulling the trigger?

For such an important moment, I think it needed to be clearer that Raya is the one to blame. This is her character arc across the film’s final act: learning to trust, and being willing to make the first step to establish trust. If we as the audience see this moment as the culmination of Raya’s failings – an unwillingness to trust either Sisu or Namaari – then the rest of her actions and her arc make sense. If we miss that crucial context and simply see this moment as Namaari the betrayer shooting Sisu, what Raya does later on – giving up her pieces of the dragon gem to signify her willingness to trust – doesn’t make as much sense in context.

Namaari’s words to Raya during their epic final fight also ring hollow when the film is seen in this way. Instead of a heartbroken Namaari laying a harsh truth on Raya, it could be interpreted as another attempt by a liar and trickster to get under Raya’s skin. The moment with the crossbow was set up perfectly, but it was too easy to miss that it was Raya, not Namaari, who was really to blame for what happened, and as the rest of the plot turned on this moment I think that should have been much clearer.

Raya chose to trust Namaari at the film’s climax.

We could also talk about how easy it seems to be to slay a dragon in this film’s lore! It seems like an unimportant point, and perhaps I’m the only one who cares or feels this way, but the way the film treated dragons across the first hour or more made it seem as though they’re magical, almost god-like creatures. The way the film’s human characters worship Sisu – and the other dragons – represents this well. Yet all it took to kill Sisu was a single crossbow shot, and I guess what I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t seem to gel. On the one hand we have the film establishing dragons as magical creatures that provided for humans, bringing water and literally giving life to the world, being worshipped and deified centuries after the last of them were wiped out. Yet on the other hand, they’re no different from any other animal and a single crossbow bolt can kill them.

Perhaps this is my western perspective, thinking about dragons not in the context of Asia but in the context of JRR Tolkien and other works of high fantasy. In western dragon lore going all the way back to the legends of Saint George and King Arthur, slaying a dragon is considered an incredibly difficult task worthy of song and celebration. In the world of Raya and the Last Dragon it seems to be something any competent soldier could do. Who knows, maybe that’s why the other dragons went extinct!

Namaari the dragon-slayer!

Raya and the Last Dragon features a cast whose major characters are all female, with male characters in secondary supporting roles. This is something new to Disney, as even past female-led films like Moana, Frozen, or Mulan have included major male characters. The creative choice to have both the main hero and villain both be female actually works really well, and Raya manages to have a closer relationship with Namaari as a result.

Namaari being a redeemable villain – and the film essentially having no overall “big bad” who has to be killed to be stopped – was also a great choice, one that fit perfectly with the theme of overcoming hate and coming together. The whole story of Raya and the Last Dragon was about learning to trust one another, setting aside differences in order to work together for the common good. This theme would have been completely undermined if the final act required Raya to kill Namaari or even her mother, so making both characters redeemable was essential to the story.

Namaari needed to be a redeemable villain for the story to work as intended.

The real villains of the piece were the non-human Druun, depicted as a non-sentient force of nature rather than a character or faction. The design of the Druun managed to strike a balance between being intimidating but not scary and offputting for young children, and I would think that all but the most sensitive children would be able to watch Raya and the Last Dragon without feeling frightened by these crackling clouds of dark purple energy.

More could have been made of the Druun’s relationship with humans. At one point it was suggested by Sisu that the Druun are an embodiment of the arguments and lack of trust between humans, yet this wasn’t really developed further. It’s not clear whether humans directly caused the Druun to appear, whether they came from someplace else to feed on this mistrust and hatred, or what their precise origins are. If the world of 500+ years ago was populated by humans and dragons and was united, with no mistrust and no hatred, how the Druun even arrived in Kumandra is not clear. Perhaps that’s something a future title will explore in more detail, because I think it’s potentially interesting to say that humanity is responsible for giving strength to this powerful foe.

The Druun were the main adversary for Raya and her friends to overcome.

So I think that’s about all I have to say. Raya and the Last Dragon was a thoroughly enjoyable film and a worthy successor to the likes of Frozen and Moana. Disney has been on a roll for almost a decade now, since the release of Frozen in 2013, and the hits keep coming. In the very short term I doubt that Raya and the Last Dragon will catch fire in the way Frozen did, largely because of the cost of accessing it on Disney+ via the “premiere access” feature. However, once the film becomes generally available that should change. In a few months’ time, when it arrives for all Disney+ subscribers, it should see a significant boost.

Unlike Frozen and Moana, the choice not to include musical numbers means that there can’t be a breakout song. Let It Go and, to a lesser extent, You’re Welcome and Shiny went on to not only define the films in which they featured, but arguably bring in more viewers. By “going viral” in a sense, the songs drew more attention to their respective films, and this is something Raya and the Last Dragon won’t have.

The main characters at the end of the film.

I had a great time with Raya and the Last Dragon. I can’t tell you whether you’ll get £20 or $30 worth of entertainment and enjoyment from the film, because such things depend on your budget and your perception of value. But this time, as a one-off and as something I won’t repeat for the rest of the year, I didn’t mind spending the extra money. I didn’t spend money on last year’s Mulan remake, and having seen the film subsequently I think that was the right call. But this time, for the latest Disney animated film, I think it was worth it. Raya and the Last Dragon was funny, emotional, and clever, and told a story about people coming together that is timeless. Its Asian roots shone through, and though some will surely argue that it was a dumbed-down version of Asian traditions, that’s Disney’s trademark style.

If you enjoyed previous Disney animated films, especially recent ones, I daresay you’ll have a good time with Raya and the Last Dragon.

Raya and the Last Dragon is available to stream now on Disney+ via the “premiere access” feature for an additional fee. Raya and the Last Dragon is the copyright of Disney Animation Studios and the Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Twelve great episodes of The Simpsons

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the episodes on this list.

At time of writing, the 700th episode of The Simpsons is imminent. Aside from soap operas, which are usually broadcast daily, very few shows come close to reaching that mark. The Simpsons is the longest-running scripted television series in US history, having made its debut in 1989 – 32 years ago! So there must be at least twelve decent episodes, right?

I first encountered The Simpsons in the mid-1990s. The first episodes to be broadcast on terrestrial television here in the UK were in 1996 or 1997, and I recall that it used to occupy the 6pm slot on the BBC. In the late 1990s this would mean it was on right before Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, providing a nice little extra as I sat down to my favourite shows!

The Simpsons in its heyday was funny, clever, and a satirical take on the idealistic sitcom families of the 1970s and 1980s. It took television tropes of that era and turned them on its head. It showed a “darker” side of American family life than other shows of its era, with a dysfunctional family at the centre. That edginess held a particular appeal, as did The Simpsons’ style of humour. Some of its nuance and specific America-centric jokes went way over my head in my youth, but I came to enjoy what the fun cartoon had to offer. The fact that The Simpsons was detested by my parents and others of their generation was another great point in its favour! In that sense, perhaps I associate earlier seasons of The Simpsons – which we got in the UK several years after their US premiere – with my burgeoning adolescence. The show came along when I was at that age – having outgrown kids’ cartoons and looking for something edgier and more serious.

It will come as no surprise, then, that the earlier seasons of The Simpsons hold most of my favourite episodes. Despite that, I have watched every season of the show at least once, and while I agree with the general consensus that the quality declined somewhere after Season 9 or 10, most seasons have had decent episodes, and most episodes manage to win a chuckle for the odd good joke, even if the premise or story itself is less fun overall.

Looking at a series that has endured for more than 30 years offers some unique challenges. Is it fair to assess The Simpsons’ overall output; all 700 episodes? If so, the show is undoubtedly mediocre, with far more sub-par episodes than good ones. But if we break The Simpsons down into two distinct eras – its ’90s heyday and then the more recent seasons – we can perhaps be fairer in our assessment. Think of it as comparable to assessing the musical legacy of artists like Bob Dylan or The Rolling Stones. In their heydays, both put out incredible, genre-defining work. But as they kept going and going and going some more, the music they were making became stagnant and its quality dropped. Can we call the careers of either artist mediocre because of a back catalogue overflowing with uninspired work that doesn’t live up to their early successes? I would argue no, both Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones should be considered musical greats – that their early work defines them, not their mediocre decades. The same should be true of The Simpsons when we come to write its eulogy. It was a great show once. It isn’t any more, but it was once – and it was such a great show that it redefined American humour for an entire generation and spawned a whole genre: adult animation. Without The Simpsons we wouldn’t have Family Guy, South Park, Rick and Morty, or even Star Trek: Lower Decks. It’s an influential series; a landmark in both the history of television and ’90s popular culture.

So without any further ado, let’s take a look at my twelve episodes. For the record, because I know people like to throw tantrums and get upset: I’m not saying that these episodes are objectively the best, nor that they represent the absolute pinnacle of The Simpsons. These are simply twelve episodes from the show that I consider to be great and well worth a watch – especially if you’re looking for something to watch on Disney+!

Number 1: Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire (Season 1, 1989)

Where better to start than at the beginning? Airing just before Christmas 1989, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire launched the series. The characters were not new – they had been part of The Tracey Ullman Show going back to 1987 – but this Christmas episode marked their solo debut. As I wrote the last time I looked at this episode on one of my Christmas lists, it represents a series finding its feet. Not all of the characters or other elements of the show that we would come to know are present yet, but the feel of The Simpsons was firmly established.

Even as Homer spirals downward, it’s impossible not to sympathise with him. The down-on-his luck dad genuinely trying to save his family’s Christmas is an oddly timeless story, one that works just as well in 2021 as it did in 1989. In my opinion, any fan of The Simpsons needs to watch this episode – if for no other reason than to see where it all began!

Number 2: Krusty Gets Busted (Season 1, 1990)

Kelsey Grammar became the first household name to guest-star in an episode of The Simpsons in this episode. He plays the role of Sideshow Bob – a character who recurs occasionally to this day! Bob attempts to frame Springfield legend – and Bart’s hero – Krusty the Clown for armed robbery, and what transpires is an astonishingly good piece of television that incorporates elements of action, mystery, and courtroom drama.

The Simpsons had already proved across its first season that it was more than just dumb jokes and simple comedy, but for me, no other Season 1 episode epitomises this better than Krusty Gets Busted. It managed to be witty and clever, taking the audience on a wild ride as Bart and Lisa attempt to prove Krusty’s innocence in spite of seemingly overwhelming evidence.

Number 3: One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish (Season 2, 1991)

Guest-starring Star Trek’s George Takei, this episode was surprisingly sombre for an animated comedy. After Lisa prompts the Simpson family to try sushi, Homer accidentally consumes the poisonous fish fugu, and is given 24 hours to live. He begins to prepare for death, and though the episode contains a number of jokes and gags, it really showed that both the series and Homer himself can be serious.

Homer makes a bucket list of things he wants and needs to do, the most touching of which were making amends with Grandpa and recording a video for Maggie. More recent episodes focusing on Homer have either shown him to be rude and selfish or a complete clown, so this goes down as a story that shows how Homer used to be – a regular guy trying his best. He has heart in this story, and his impending death doesn’t just mean he wants to do things for himself, but rather for others – for his father, his daughter, and his friends.

Number 4: Flaming Moe’s (Season 3, 1991)

There are a few episodes of The Simpsons that are absolutely iconic, and Flaming Moe’s has to be one of them. Focusing on the relationships between Homer and Moe and Homer and Bart, it’s a surprisingly dramatic story with a truly silly premise! That concept is something that the show did especially well in its early years. Homer accidentally invents an amazing drink – the “Flaming Homer” – but Moe steals his recipe and uses it to drive business to his bar.

Moe is a strangely relatable character, at least for me. He does a lot of bad things across the show’s run, and is by no means sympathetic, but he’s driven by depression and loneliness. While that doesn’t excuse his actions in Flaming Moe’s, the desire to be successful and lauded, especially for someone who feels so low much of the time, is at least understandable, and the episode manages to be more than the sum of its parts because of the nuance in both Moe and Homer’s characters.

Number 5: Homer at the Bat (Season 3, 1992)

We don’t have baseball or softball in the UK, so some of the gags in Homer at the Bat went over my head on first viewing! But it’s a truly funny story, as Mr Burns tries to cheat at softball by hiring professional players to work at his power plant – a commentary both on the way some countries run their Olympic teams and on the concept of college sports.

In true ’90s sports movie style, Homer ends up winning the important game by accident! It’s a fun romp, one which shows Mr Burns at both his most devious and eccentric, as well as looking at the sport of baseball in some detail.

Number 6: Mr. Plow (Season 4, 1992)

Another of The Simpsons’ most iconic episodes, Mr. Plow shows Homer stepping away from his usual job at the nuclear plant to start his own snowplow business. I like winter time and winter-themed episodes, so this premise was a lot of fun. But in true Simpsons style, things don’t go to plan for Homer. After initially becoming successful as the town’s snowplow of choice, Homer loses it all when Barney (of all people) jumps into the business as his competitor.

The “Mr. Plow jingle” became an early meme, and it’s a great example of the show’s early humour and depictions of Homer. By creating the silly five-second jingle, Homer imitates other commercials of the era in his own way. The whole Mr. Plow commercial perfectly captures low-quality local television commercials of the 1990s and was absolutely hilarious.

Number 7: Homer’s Barbershop Quartet (Season 5, 1993)

There have been some great flashback episodes across the show’s run, providing elaborate backstories to many of the characters. In Homer’s Barbershop Quartet, we learn that Homer – along with Apu, Barney, and Principal Skinner – used to be famous. The plot parodies the rise and fall of The Beatles, from the band getting together, having a string of hits, and subsequently falling apart, but like many earlier episodes, it manages to be gentle in its treatment of the subject it tackles – it’s a send-up of The Beatles without being mean-spirited.

The reunion concert which closes the episode is of course a reference to The Beatles’ famous rooftop concert in 1969, and was a truly touching moment for the episode to end on. This is another episode that manages to have plenty of jokes, but still tells a story with emotion and heart. There are some great songs, too!

Number 8: Itchy & Scratchy Land (Season 6, 1994)

I’ve written before about how I greatly enjoy Disney World and other Disney theme parks, and Itchy & Scratchy Land is a perfect parody of them! Homer and Marge take the kids on holiday to the titular theme park, but things go wrong almost from the first moment they arrive. Seeing Bart and Lisa begging for the vacation was cute and funny, and Homer buying “Itchy & Scratchy money” only to find it isn’t accepted at any of the shops in the park was a hilarious gag.

The episode later turns into a send-up of Jurassic Park when the theme park’s animatronics come to life and begin attacking the family. Of course they manage to survive and escape, but it’s a surprisingly tense and action-filled second half to an episode that started out as a gentle family holiday parody.

Number 9: Lisa the Vegetarian (Season 7, 1995)

A show like The Simpsons typically “resets” after each story, with any growth or change the characters experience being largely ignored in subsequent adventures. A rare exception to this came in Lisa the Vegetarian, which added a new dimension to the character of Lisa. Lisa’s vegetarianism has gone on to be a defining feature of her character, a major part of making her the show’s liberal, left-leaning voice.

Paul and Linda McCartney, who guest-star, were already committed vegetarians by this point, and making Lisa a vegetarian was done in their honour. Linda McCartney sadly passed away less than three years after the episode was broadcast. A true gem that often flies under the radar when fans put together “best of” lists, Lisa the Vegetarian tackles some deep issues in The Simpsons’ typically fun way and deserves more recognition.

Number 10: The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson (Season 9, 1997)

New York City in the 1990s was experiencing somewhat of a renaissance, and this episode shows why. Homer had a bad experience in the crime-riddled city years previously and refuses to go back, but when Barney leaves his car parked at the World Trade Center, Homer and the family must go there to retrieve it.

I’ve only been to New York a couple of times, but the city is absolutely iconic. This episode does a fantastic job of capturing the look and feel of New York, and as we see part of it through Homer’s eyes, it isn’t quite the paradise it wants to be! The city can be confusing and difficult for tourists and newcomers, and The Simpsons’ gentle prodding shows why. We really see two sides of New York in the episode – Homer’s dark vision of the city and the rest of the family’s vision of a fun place to visit.

Number 11: Treehouse of Horror X (Season 11, 1999)

I wanted to put at least one Treehouse of Horror episode on the list, because The Simpsons Halloween specials have always been fun. It’s unusual for any series to regularly roll out “non-canon” episodes, but the annual Halloween specials are a perfect example of how The Simpsons doesn’t take itself too seriously.

In the tenth outing (the Treehouse of Horror specials first appeared in Season 2) the three mini-stories focus on the family running over Ned Flanders in a parody of the 1997 horror film I Know What You Did Last Summer, then Bart and Lisa gain superpowers in a gentle send-up of nerd culture and collecting, and finally Homer accidentally brings about the end of the world – courtesy of the millennium bug! Do you remember “Y2K” and how a lot of folks were in a panic about that? It was a big deal in 1999, and was the perfect way for that year’s Halloween special to end.

Number 12: Mypods and Boomsticks (Season 20, 2008)

I wanted to choose at least one recent episode for this list – though I suppose 2008 is stretching that definition a little – to prove that The Simpsons does still, at least on occasion, get it right. Mypods and Boomsticks partly focuses on Lisa as she overspends on music for her new MyPod – a not-so-subtle iPod parody. But the main reason it succeeds is in its depiction of Homer and his interactions with a new Muslim family.

The Simpsons in its early years tried to be a dark mirror of American society, showcasing and parodying the darker side of everyday American life. After the 9/11 attacks, anti-Muslim prejudice rose significantly in the United States, and Mypods and Boomsticks is the show’s attempt to look at the issue. Homer initially suspects his new neighbours are plotting a terrorist attack, but it’s later shown that he’s completely mistaken. The episode was praised by many Muslim groups in the United States for breaking down stereotypes and presenting a positive depiction of American Muslims.

So that’s it. Twelve great episodes of The Simpsons.

There are far, far more great episodes that I didn’t put on this list – so maybe this can be a topic to revisit one day! The Simpsons, especially in its early years, was a fantastic and very witty series, so there are dozens of truly outstanding episodes to choose from. It’s certainly true that recent years have seen a drop in quality, but perhaps that’s as much to do with the way entertainment and humour have moved on than it is to do with the series itself.

The Simpsons pioneered a new style of comedy and brought animation to the world of adult entertainment for the first time. A whole host of shows that are going strong today owe it their existence, and it will always have a place in the history of television. If you have Disney+ you have access to the show’s entire back catalogue, and while I’ve recommended twelve episodes here, there are so many more that are worth your time as well.

As a comedy series I first encountered in adolescence, The Simpsons holds a special place for me as a piece of my youth. In its heyday it was a slice of American counter-culture that definitely upset the crusty old grown-ups, and I wasn’t alone in appreciating that side of the show’s darker, edgier humour.

That’s about all I have to say. The Simpsons was a fantastic series, and I had fun choosing a small number of great episodes from its almost 700-strong back catalogue. I hope this was a bit of fun for you too!

The Simpsons is available to stream now on Disney+ and is also available on DVD. The Simpsons, and all episodes listed above, are the copyright of the Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

A willingness to change is the key difference between Star Trek and Star Wars in 2021

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the following: The Mandalorian Seasons 1-2, The Rise of Skywalker, Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3, Star Trek: Picard. Minor spoilers may be present for other iterations of both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises.

I’ve been working on my review of Season 2 of The Mandalorian, which was shown on Disney+ at the end of last year, and I found myself saying the same thing several times. I will (eventually) finish that review, but for now I wanted to take a step back and look at two of the biggest sci-fi/space fantasy franchises, and one crucial difference between them.

Whether it’s the prequel trilogy, sequel trilogy, spin-offs, or even the recently announced slate of upcoming projects, Star Wars is intent on sticking close to its roots. I’ve made this point before, but Star Wars as a whole has only ever told one real story – that of Palpatine, Anakin, Luke, and Rey. Every film and television series in Star Wars’ main canon either directly tells part of that story or is inextricably tied to it. The inclusion of Luke Skywalker and other legacy characters in The Mandalorian doubles down on this.

Luke Skywalker recently appeared in The Mandalorian.

In contrast, Star Trek has continually tried new and different things. The Next Generation took its timeline 80+ years into the future and left much of the franchise’s first incarnation behind. Deep Space Nine took the action away from starships to a space station. Enterprise was a prequel, but not one which told the early lives of any classic characters. The Kelvin films attempted to reboot Star Trek as a big screen popcorn blockbuster. Discovery took a serialised approach to its storytelling, and Picard picked up that format but used it to tell a very different type of story. Lower Decks is perhaps the biggest departure to date, branching out beyond sci-fi into the realm of animated comedy. Though there are common threads binding the franchise together, each project is one piece of a much larger whole, and the Star Trek galaxy feels – to me, at least – much more vast as a result.

Where Star Wars has told one overarching story, Star Trek has told hundreds, many of which are totally separate and distinct from one another. And that concept shows no sign of slowing down. Indeed, both franchises are doubling down on what they do best: Star Wars is focusing on classic characters and looking inwards, Star Trek is expanding and trying new things.

Captain Burnham will take Star Trek: Discovery to new places.

That willingness to change, to explore totally different and unrelated aspects of its setting, is what sets Star Trek apart from Star Wars right now – and arguably is one of the big points of divergence going all the way back to the mid-1980s. It may also explain why so many fans are excited about The Mandalorian and even the dire Rise of Skywalker, while some Star Trek fans have never been interested in Discovery, Picard, and Lower Decks.

Nostalgia is a big deal in entertainment, and while I would argue Star Wars has overplayed that particular card far too often, there’s no denying it has seen success with that formula. That’s why we’re seeing the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, the Ahsoka series, the Lando series, and even the Cassian Andor series all getting ready to debut on Disney+ in the next few years.

Star Wars continues to bring back characters, themes, and designs from its past.

Someone far cleverer than I am said something a while ago that really got me thinking. If a franchise – like Star Wars, in this case – relies so heavily on nostalgia to the point of never trying anything new, it won’t survive beyond its current generation of fans. Because bringing in new fans – the lifeblood of any franchise – is increasingly difficult when every project is designed exclusively with existing fans in mind. How can Star Wars survive when its current fanbase moves on if everything it does is fan service? What kind of appeal does the Obi-Wan Kenobi show have to someone new to Star Wars? Basically none.

With the exception of Star Trek: Picard, which did rely on the strength of its returning character, I think any Star Trek project has the potential to bring in new fans. Some shows and films are definitely enhanced by knowing more about Star Trek and its setting, but even in Discovery, where main character Michael Burnham is related to classic character Spock, there really wasn’t anything that required a lot of background knowledge.

Spock in Star Trek: Discovery.

Star Trek is not only trying new things, but the people in charge are conscious to allow each project to stand on its own two feet. They are parts of a greater whole – and while I have argued many times here on the website that Star Trek could do more to bind its ongoing series together, it’s still possible to watch one show and not the others without feeling like you’ve missed something important.

What we see are two very different approaches to storytelling. Both Star Trek and Star Wars were reborn in the mid-2010s out of a desire on the part of their parent companies to use nostalgia as a hook to bring in audiences. That should not be in dispute, and I don’t want to say that Star Trek somehow avoids the nostalgia trap. But where Star Wars really only has nostalgia going for it, Star Trek continues to branch out, using nostalgia as a base but not allowing it to overwhelm any project.

“Baby Yoda” is symbolic of Star Wars’ reliance on nostalgia in many ways.

Neither approach is “right” or “wrong;” such things are subjective. I don’t want to sound overly critical of Star Wars either, because despite my personal feelings, there’s no denying many of the creative decisions made are popular – even The Rise of Skywalker, which was eviscerated by critics, was well-received in some areas of the fandom. It just strikes me as interesting and noteworthy that these two major franchises are taking very different approaches to the way they construct their narratives.

Whether it’s the inclusion of Luke Skywalker himself, the aesthetic of practically everything in the show, or a storyline which returns the franchise to the Jedi and the Force, The Mandalorian oozes nostalgia from every orifice – and if that’s what fans want and will lap up, then that’s okay. It was too much for me, and I stand by what I said last year during the show’s first season: I was expecting to see “the adventures of a gunslinger far from the reaches of the New Republic;” a show which would take Star Wars away from some of those themes to new places. That was my preference – a personal preference, to be sure, and judging by the positive reaction not only to The Mandalorian but to spin-off announcements like the Obi-Wan Kenobi series (and the return of Darth Vader to that series) I’m in the minority.

Mandalorian armour (i.e. Boba Fett’s armour) seen in The Mandalorian.

Star Trek takes a different approach. Both Picard and Discovery in their most recent seasons moved the timeline forward, brought in new characters, and dealt with contemporary themes. There were touches of classic Star Trek in both shows, including in aesthetic elements like set design and costuming, but in both cases the franchise feels like it’s moving forward.

Costuming is an interesting point to consider, as it’s representative of where both franchises find themselves. As early as 2015’s The Force Awakens, Star Wars was stepping back, relying on Stormtrooper armour, First Order uniforms, and especially the costumes worn by Rey that were practically identical to those seen in the original films. This was continued in The Mandalorian, not only with the main character’s Boba Fett armour, but with the use of Original Trilogy Stormtrooper armour and costumes for many villains. In contrast, Star Trek took its main characters out of uniform entirely in Picard, and Discovery has introduced a whole new set of uniforms and a new combadge for the 32nd Century. Where Star Wars looks back to its heyday, Star Trek looks forward, incorporating some of its classic designs into wholly new variants.

Discovery’s new combadges (as seen in the opening titles).

What we see in these costuming choices is a reflection of where both franchises are narratively. Star Wars continues to look back at the only truly successful films the franchise has ever made: the Original Trilogy. Frightened of trying anything truly new and unwilling to leave that comfortable ground, it’s stuck. As I wrote once, the Original Trilogy has become a weight around the neck of modern Star Wars, as projects not only become constrained by those films, but continue to fail to live up to them.

Star Trek looks forward, tries new things, and embraces change. Not every new project will win huge support and be successful, but some will, and every project has the possibility to be a launchpad for others, taking the evolving franchise to completely different places.

The Original Trilogy is – in my opinion at least – holding Star Wars back.

It’s clear which approach I prefer, and that I’d like to see more innovation and change from Star Wars. Though I was certainly underwhelmed by some of the recent announcements made by Disney and LucasFilm, I’m hopeful that, despite being held back in many ways by an overreliance on nostalgia, some decent films and series may stumble out the door.

Each franchise could learn something from the other, though. Star Trek’s projects are split up, and while Discovery’s third season made an admirable effort to connect to Picard, that was not reciprocated. Lower Decks had many callbacks and references to ’90s Star Trek, but otherwise stands alone. The franchise could work harder to bind its different projects together, reminding audiences that they’re watching one piece of a greater whole.

The Qowat Milat, who debuted in Picard, later appeared in Discovery. But the franchise could do more to bring its projects together.

Star Wars could see how a successful sci-fi franchise doesn’t need to be constrained by its original incarnation, and that shaking things up can work. The Mandalorian felt to me as though it was retreating to Star Wars’ comfort zone, and while that move may be popular right now with the fandom, it doesn’t really provide a solid foundation for expansion in the way Star Trek’s shows and films have done.

At the end of the day, both franchises are testament to the power of nostalgia to bring fans back. But they undeniably take very different approaches to that. Star Wars is conscious to try to make everything feel like its first couple of films – to the point that it can be overwhelming. Star Trek certainly doesn’t overwhelm anyone with nostalgia – to the point that some recent projects have been criticised for feeling like they aren’t part of the franchise at all.

Whichever approach you ultimately feel works best, one thing is clear: neither franchise is disappearing any time soon! The first half of the 2020s -and hopefully beyond – will see several different projects from both Star Trek and Star Wars, and as a fan of both and of sci-fi and fantasy in general, that’s great news. Long may it continue!

The Star Trek franchise – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. The Star Wars franchise – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of LucasFilm and Disney. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

What might we watch and play in 2021?

Happy New Year! As we put the calamitous 2020 behind us, let’s look ahead to some of the entertainment experiences we might enjoy between now and Christmas. There’s only 51 weeks till the big day, you know. Better start your Christmas shopping!

The effects of 2020’s disruption are still being felt, and while we should hopefully see a return to normalcy slowly building over the next few months, there will undoubtedly be changes to come. From my point of view as a Trekkie, the big question is this: how much Star Trek will we get this year? After 2020 saw the release of three different Star Trek projects, it’s not inconceivable that the only episode we’ll see in 2021 will be next week’s finale of Star Trek: Discovery Season 3!

We do know, at least, that some big projects still intend to release this year. Let’s look at a few – in no particular order.

Cinema

The pandemic has not magically gone away with the arrival of the new year, and many cinemas look set to remain closed in the weeks ahead. The distribution of vaccines will be key to their re-opening, and thus to the release of at least some big films. However, there have been plans announced to bring some of 2021’s big releases to streaming platforms – either instead of or in addition to a theatrical release. How well this will work, and whether many of these plans go ahead if the pandemic is brought under control is up in the air right now – but it remains a possibility.

Number 1:
Dune

The latest adaptation of Dune is the first part of a duology, and was originally supposed to be released in 2020. Of course that couldn’t happen, and Dune is now set for a December release, and will supposedly come to HBO Max at the same time. Though the story has been notoriously difficult to adapt, this version has a huge budget, a stellar cast, and what look like wonderful visual effects based on the trailer. It feels like a film with great potential, and I’m eagerly awaiting its release.

Number 2:
No Time To Die

The latest Bond film – which is set to be Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007 – has been delayed by over a year. It was originally scheduled for an April 2020 release, but that has been pushed back to April 2021. There are no current plans to bring the film to streaming, and as it’s supposedly the most expensive Bond film of all time, perhaps that makes sense. April feels optimistic, but we’ll see how things go! Regardless, I’ve always enjoyed the Bond franchise, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens as this chapter of the 007 cinematic saga draws to a close.

Number 3:
Jungle Cruise

I love Disney World and the other Disney theme parks! When I heard that the House of Mouse was planning to make a film based on their Pirates of the Caribbean ride in the early 2000s I thought it sounded like a terrible idea – yet Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was an incredibly fun film with heart. Jungle Cruise is likewise based on a Disney World/Disneyland ride, one which, if memory serves, is cute and action-packed! The film adaptation will have to try hard to retain at least some elements of what makes the ride enjoyable, but if it can succeed it could grow to become an ongoing series like Pirates of the Caribbean.

Number 4:
The Matrix 4

As I said last time, I really don’t know where The Matrix 4 could possibly take the story of the series. However, I’m still fascinated to find out! This will be our first time back in this setting since 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions, and I’m sure a lot of fans are excited and nervous in equal measure. The idea of the world being artificial was somewhat of a novelty for the big screen when The Matrix did it in 1999, but we’ve since seen other takes on the concept. Will it stick to the late-90s/early-00s aesthetic for scenes set in the simulated world? Will there even be a simulated world if humanity broke free? We’ll soon find out.

Number 5:
Raya and the Last Dragon

After Disney saw success with the Polynesian-themed Moana, they have turned to Southeast Asia for inspiration for Raya and the Last Dragon. Kelly Marie Tran will voice the titular Raya, and Disney animated films have always been worth watching so I’m expecting an enjoyable film. Disney appears to be going through somewhat of a second renaissance in the aftermath of Frozen’s huge success in 2013, and hopefully this will be a continuation of that. I’m also rooting for Kelly Marie Tran after the awful treatment she had to endure at the hands of some so-called “fans” of Star Wars. Raya and the Last Dragon will take the approach pioneered by Mulan and be released on Disney+ for a fee.

Number 6:
The Suicide Squad

2016’s Suicide Squad won an Academy Award. Just in case you forgot! Was it an outstanding cinematic triumph that I’m happy to rewatch time and again? Not exactly, but it was a decent action-packed blockbuster that was an okay way to kill a couple of hours. And that’s what I expect from this direct sequel – nothing groundbreaking, but a solid film with some cute comic book elements.

Number 7:
The King’s Man

Kingsman was a surprisingly fun film when it was released in 2014, and the third entry in the series is a prequel. The King’s Man looks set to examine the outlandish spy organisation’s past and possibly its origins, as well as throw together another action-comedy that takes inspiration from the likes of James Bond. I think that sounds like fun! The King’s Man will feature some pretty big names, including Ralph Finnes, Charles Dance, and Rhys Ifans.

Number 8:
Uncharted

Films based on video games have not often performed well. Though some have become cult classics in their own right, most films adapted from video games have not been successful. Will Uncharted be any different? The project has been in development for a long time and seen many behind-the-scenes changes, but having settled on a script and director, Tom Holland was cast in the role of Nathan Drake. At the very least there’s potential for a summer popcorn flick; a blockbuster adventure film. Whether it will succeed at becoming “the new Indiana Jones” is up for debate – but maybe!

Number 9:
Death on the Nile

2017’s Murder on the Orient Express was great fun, and Death on the Nile is a sequel of sorts. Adapted from a 1937 novel by famed murder-mystery author Agatha Christie, Kenneth Branagh both directs and stars in the picture as detective Hercule Poirot. The cast list reads like a who’s who of British and international stars, including Jennifer Saunders, Rose Leslie, Russell Brand, and Gal Gadot. If you’re familiar with the book or one of the two earlier adaptations the ending will no doubt be known – but that doesn’t mean the journey there won’t be mysterious and thrilling!

Number 10:
Free Guy

Free Guy is about a non-player character in an open world video game who becomes sentient and tries to escape the game. And he’s played by Ryan Reynolds. Are you sold yet? Because that premise (and casting choice) was all it took to hook me in and decide that Free Guy would be worth a look! It sounds like fun, and Reynolds has great comedic timing as we’ve seen with titles like Deadpool. At the very least it’s a unique premise for a film, and one that seems like it could be really funny.

Gaming

With two new consoles barely a month old, both Sony and Microsoft will surely make moves to shore up their player bases this year. There are some titles on the schedule that look absolutely fantastic, and while the release of many of these on what is now last generation’s hardware will mean we won’t see the full power of the next-gen machines just yet, we should begin to see some improvements in what games are capable of. I better get on with upgrading my PC!

Number 1:
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

Rumours swirled for much of last year of an impending Mass Effect trilogy remaster, and the project was finally announced a few weeks ago. Despite its controversial ending, the three games tell a deep and engaging story in a unique sci-fi setting, and were great fun during the Xbox 360 era. Has enough time passed to make updating the trilogy worthwhile? Mass Effect 3 was only released eight years ago, after all. And will the remaster do everything needed to bring these games up-to-date? With Mass Effect 4 on the distant horizon, it will have to! I’m cautiously interested in this one – it could be wonderful to replay these games, but as we’ve seen with some recent remasters, not every company manages to hit a home run when it comes to updating a beloved title.

Number 2:
Hogwarts Legacy

I wrote about this game when it was first announced, but suffice to say I’m truly interested to see what Hogwarts Legacy delivers. It promises to be an “action role-playing game set in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the 1800s,” meaning it’s set decades before any of the Harry Potter books. That basic premise worked well for games like Knights of the Old Republic over in the Star Wars franchise, and should allow Hogwarts Legacy to tell a standalone story. The only games set in Harry Potter’s world so far have been straight adaptations of the films, so this is something genuinely different. Hopefully it can tell a fun story!

Number 3:
Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga

Though I didn’t have time to review it before Christmas, The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special was great fun over on Disney+. I had hoped to see Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga last year, but it got pushed back and is currently due for release in “early 2021” – whatever that may mean! The first couple of Lego Star Wars games, which were released in the mid-2000s, were really great fun, and I’ve been looking forward to the latest bricky reimagining of the Star Wars saga since it was announced. Lego games have never tried to take themselves seriously, and the end result has always been titles which are just a lot of fun.

Number 4:
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum

What could a game starring Gollum possibly bring to the table? I have absolutely no idea! But games – and stories in general – focusing on an antihero can be wonderful, so I’m very curious to find out. It’s also great to see another big single-player title given the glut of live services and always-online multiplayer games. I’m a fan of Middle-earth and the world Tolkien built, so hopefully this game will be a fun return to that setting. Taking on the role of Gollum will offer a different look at Middle-earth, and whether it focuses on the main story from the books or not, has the potential to be fascinating.

Number 5:
Skull & Bones

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag demonstrated that there’s still a lot of appeal in pirate-themed titles. Skull & Bones wasn’t something I was especially interested in at first, but upon learning it will feature a single-player campaign I was happy to add it to the list. It seems to be a game that will deal with the naval combat side of things, and as long as it can really nail ship-to-ship combat within its game engine it should at least be a solid title. Naval games are relatively rare in the combat/strategy/action genres, so perhaps Skull & Bones will offer something a little different.

Number 6:
Outriders

Outriders was one of the first next-gen games that reviewers really had a chance to get to grips with before the launch of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. The consensus was that it seems like a fun third-person shooter, even if it wasn’t quite as “next-gen feeling” as some had hoped. Regardless, Outriders has continued its development and will be released this year. The basic premise feels like a mix of sci-fi and superhero comics, and at the very least it’s a brand-new setting at a time when a lot of studios are focused on sequels and franchises.

Number 7:
GhostWire: Tokyo

I honestly don’t know what to expect from GhostWire: Tokyo. It’s a game shrouded in mystery! One thing we know for sure is that it will feature a supernatural storyline, and that alone sounds like it has potential. A teaser trailer released last year didn’t show much, but we know that the game will draw on Japanese mythology and will be a first-person action-adventure game with some supernatural horror elements. It might be wonderful… or it might not be my thing! We’ll have to wait and see.

Number 8:
Diablo IV

After disappointing fans with Diablo Immortal, and then messing up with the controversy around their decision to censor a professional player who supported the protests in Hong Kong, it’s not unfair to say that there’s a lot riding on Diablo IV for Blizzard’s reputation. Early indications are that the dungeon-crawler looks good, and could be a return to form. Diablo III had issues at launch, so this is very much one to take a “wait-and-see” approach with, but if the studio can recreate the magic of older titles then Diablo IV should offer a fun experience.

Number 9:
Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury

My most recent foray into Mario’s 3D adventures was underwhelming, as Super Mario 3D All-Stars was not actually all that great. However, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury might be! The base game was released on the Wii U, but Bowser’s Fury is something altogether new. How substantial it will be remains to be seen, but taken as a whole the package seems to offer good value. I love the cat suits introduced in Super Mario 3D World, they’re cute and add a different element to Mario and the gang’s 3D adventures.

Number 10:
Humankind

Humankind initially attracted me because of how similar it looks to Civilization VI – one of my most-played games of the 2010s. But there’s more to it than that, and the concept of creating a unique civilisation by combining different historical empires and cultures is, at the very least, innovative. I love a good strategy game, and Humankind could be a big time-sink for me this year – if it can deliver on some pretty big ambitions!

Television

After 2020 saw major disruption to cinema, 2021 could be television’s turn. Though shielded from the brunt of the pandemic, a number of television shows planned for 2021 have seen major delays to production. Despite that, there are still plenty of options on the horizon, including some that look absolutely phenomenal.

Number 1:
Zack Snyder’s Justice League

I can’t actually remember if Justice League is one of the DC films I’ve seen or not. If you’re a regular around here, you’ll know I’m not a big comic book fan generally speaking. And it’s not unfair to say that DC is the lesser of the two comic book powerhouses right now! I honestly did not expect the so-called “Snyder cut” of Justice League to ever see the light of day, but after a campaign by fans the film will be released – as a four-part miniseries on HBO Max. I’m at least somewhat interested to see what all the fuss is about!

Number 2:
Star Trek: Prodigy

After Lower Decks took the Star Trek franchise in a different – and very funny – direction in 2020, I’m curious to see what Prodigy will bring to the table. Some shows made for kids can actually tell very meaningful and interesting stories, and it’s my hope that Prodigy will manage to offer at least something to Trekkies beyond its target audience. The addition of Kate Mulgrew to the cast – reprising her role as Captain/Admiral Janeway – is tantalising too, and although that’s about all we know at this stage, the series aims to have a 2021 release. That could be pushed back, but fingers crossed we’ll see Prodigy some time soon.

Number 3:
Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series

Despite not having so much as a title, Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series has been targeting a 2021 release. It seems certain that, if this is to happen, it will have to be later in the year; filming is still ongoing at time of writing. However, a return to the land of Middle-earth is truly an exciting prospect, as is a look at the setting away from most of the characters we remember. The series will take place thousands of years before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so there’s the potential to tell some very different fantasy stories in Tolkien’s world.

Number 4:
Station Eleven

Based on a 2014 novel of the same name, Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic drama set after the world has been devastated by a pandemic. Timely, right? Though filming began in early 2020 the series is still being worked on, but could finally see the light of day on HBO Max at some point this year. It feels like a project that, simply due to bad timing, may be controversial – but that could simply increase its appeal! Regardless, I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.

Number 5:
Foundation

Isaac Asimov is one of the grandfathers of science fiction. Whether his work will translate well from page to screen is an open question… but one I’m very curious to see answered. This adaptation of Asimov’s Foundation series will star Jared Harris, an absolutely incredible actor you might recall from 2019’s Chernobyl. It’s being produced for Apple TV+ as one of their first big-budget productions – or at least, the first one I’ve come to care about. 2021 looks set to be a big year for some of these second-tier streaming services!

Number 6:
Star Trek: Lower Decks

Lower Decks has finally secured an international broadcast agreement, more than five months after its first season premiered for viewers in North America. That’s good news, because a second season is already in development and will be able to be shared by fans around the world when it’s ready. Season 1 ended with some surprising twists for an animated comedy, and it remains to be seen what the end result of those storylines will be for our young ensigns aboard the USS Cerritos. Lower Decks took a few episodes to really hit its stride – and there were some missteps along the way – but for my money it’s up there with the best animated comedies of recent years, and I hope that the combination of its international debut and second season will see the show get the admiration it warrants.

Number 7:
The Expanse

I haven’t yet sat down to watch Season 5 of The Expanse, which premiered last month on Amazon Prime Video. However, the first four seasons were outstanding, and Season 6 is set to be the show’s last. Hopefully it will go out on a high! The Expanse is a wonderful science fiction series, one which has tried to take a more realistic look at the dangers of space travel and alien life. Many sci-fi stories treat these elements almost as mundane, yet The Expanse approached them with wide-eyed wonder, making things like accelerating a spacecraft integral parts of its story. It’s a wonderful series, and its final season should be explosive, entertaining, and ever so slightly sad as we bid it a fond farewell.

Number 8:
The Witcher

I half-expected to see the second season of Netflix’s The Witcher last year, but for whatever reason the streaming powerhouse is taking its time. Henry Cavill was great in the title role in Season 1, and hopefully the second season will keep up the high quality. I always appreciate a new fantasy series, and while the show owes its existence to the popular video games, it’s distinct from them at the same time, drawing more on the original book series for inspiration. Its return to our screens – which may not be until later in the year – is highly anticipated!

Number 9:
Star Wars: Andor

I wasn’t exactly wild about the recent announcements of upcoming Star Wars projects. As I wrote at the time: “spin-offs to spin-offs and the increasingly minor characters given starring roles is indicative of a franchise out of ideas.” Part of that criticism was aimed at Andor, the series which will focus on Rogue One’s Cassian Andor. However, on its own merit the show – which bills itself as a “spy thriller” – may very well be decent, and I’m cautiously interested to see what Disney and Lucasfilm bring to the table. Rogue One was certainly one of the better offerings since Disney began producing Star Wars projects, so maybe Andor will surprise me and tell some genuinely different stories in the Star Wars galaxy.

Number 10:
Clarice

Alex Kurtzman’s latest project for ViacomCBS will focus on Clarice Starling – the FBI agent introduced in Silence of the Lambs. How well will a show about Clarice work without Hannibal Lecter? Well that’s an open question, quite frankly, because as far as we know, complicated licensing and rights agreements mean Dr Lecter can’t appear. The show is being pitched as horror, though, following Agent Starling as she investigates sexual crimes in the aftermath of the events of Silence of the Lambs. It certainly has potential!

So that’s it.

You may have noticed some exclusions – notably Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Discovery, and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. While all three are in pre-production for their upcoming seasons, none have been confirmed for 2021 at this juncture. Given the state of the world and how badly production has been impacted, while I remain hopeful that at least one live-action Star Trek show will make it to air, it’s entirely plausible that none will. That’s why they didn’t feature on the list.

If all goes well, 2021 should be a good year for entertainment. I see a lot of projects in film, gaming, and television that have the potential to tell wonderful, engaging stories. If lockdowns and quarantines remain in place – where I live in the UK restrictions just got a lot tougher – then we’ll need all the distractions we can get!

Mark your diary for some upcoming releases!

The year ahead is unpredictable, and it’s possible that some of the projects I’m excited for won’t make it to release – or will end up being less enjoyable than expected. But on the flip side, there are undoubtedly films, games, and television shows waiting in the wings to surprise me; titles that didn’t make this list that I will come to greatly enjoy as the year rolls on. There were several wonderful surprises in 2020 that, had you asked me in January of last year, were not even on my radar. The same will perhaps happen this year too!

With everything going on in the world, having something to look forward to is important. Even if all you can think of that excites or interests you is a television show or video game, that’s okay. It gives you something to hang on to; light at the end of the tunnel. I wish you a very Happy New Year, and all the best for 2021.

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective company, studio, developer, publisher, broadcaster, distributor, etc. Some promotional artwork and images courtesy of IGDB. Stock photos courtesy of Unsplash. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Star Wars doubles down HARD

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the Star Wars franchise, including The Rise of Skywalker, The Mandalorian, and announcements for upcoming productions.

A few months ago I wrote an article titled “Star Wars needs to move on.” In that piece I looked at how the Star Wars franchise has only ever told one real story since it debuted in 1977. Prequels, sequels, and spin-offs all played into or expanded the only real story the franchise has ever told – that of Palpatine and minor characters like Anakin, Luke, and Rey who apparently don’t get to act of their own volition. I argued that, just like Star Trek had done with The Next Generation in 1987, Star Wars needed to put the Skywalker Saga behind it and genuinely move on, telling new stories with new characters.

The Mandalorian should have done this, but hasn’t. The inclusion of Baby Yoda, the Force, Boba Fett, and so many elements copied from the Original Trilogy overwhelmed that series and left me disappointed. I was desperately hoping that, after the reaction to The Rise of Skywalker, the team at Disney and Lucasfilm would think hard about what to do next.

The inclusion of Palpatine ruined The Rise of Skywalker.

Instead they’ve once again retreated back to the Original Trilogy, its spin-offs, and familiar characters. I would have hoped that the failure of Palpatine’s ham-fisted insertion into The Rise of Skywalker would have served as a warning, and that with the only story the franchise has ever told now at a seemingly-final end, the franchise could genuinely move on.

The Star Wars galaxy is up there with Tolkien’s Middle-earth as one of the finest fantasy worlds ever brought to life, yet the creative team at Disney and Lucasfilm seem intent on never exploring the wonderful sandbox they paid $4 billion for. They’re instead going to show us the same tiny sliver over and over again, bringing to life ever more ridiculous spin-offs looking at characters of decreasing importance. What a disappointment.

Star Wars: Andor is a spin-off from a spin-off and a prequel to a prequel.

Let’s look at these disappointing announcements. A Droid Story will focus on R2-D2 and C-3PO. The Bad Batch is a spin-off to The Clone Wars, which was itself a spin-off to Attack of the Clones. Andor is the previously-announced series based around Rogue One’s Cassian Andor. Lando is bringing back Donald Glover, who took on the role of the smuggler in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Rangers of the New Republic is a spin-off from The Mandalorian. Ahsoka is another spin-off from The Mandalorian. And in the previously-announced Obi-Wan Kenobi series, we have the return of Darth Vader.

The only announcements which seem to have any potential to tell new stories are 2023’s Rogue Squadron, a project called Acolyte about which no information was revealed, and an as-yet-untitled film helmed by Taika Waititi. Everything else falls into the same trap that the franchise has fallen into repeatedly since the prequel era: overtreading the same ground, forcing fans to look back, and overplaying the nostalgia card. There’s nothing bold or innovative in any of these announcements. They represent a backwards-looking cowardly corporation, desperate to rekindle the magic of the Original Trilogy but without any clue of how to do so.

Do we really need a Star Wars film about these two droids?

Spin-offs to spin-offs and the increasingly minor characters given starring roles is indicative of a franchise out of ideas. There’s absolutely no creativity in any of these projects that I can see. At a fundamental level they’re all trying to do the same thing – use nostalgia as a hook to bring fans back. If the Star Wars galaxy looked bland and uninteresting, perhaps that would be a necessity. But it’s always been presented as such a vast, interesting setting that it’s positively criminal to only ever look at a tiny portion of it. There are tens of thousands of years of galactic history to dive into, as well as an uncertain future in the years after the war against the First Order. Could we see some of that, maybe?

And how about new characters? The idea of a show based on the two droids is patently ridiculous, as are those focusing on minor characters from spin-off projects. Donald Glover’s portrayal of Lando was certainly one of the better elements of Solo, but does that mean he needs an entire project of his own? What will Disney and Lucasfilm do when these projects run their course? Are we going to see Star Wars: Snowtrooper #7 and Star Wars: That Two-Headed Podrace Announcer? At this rate that’s what’ll happen.

Is this guy getting his own spin-off too?

The sequel trilogy got two things wrong when considering the fundamentals of its storytelling. Firstly was the inexplicable decision to split up the writing, leaving it with no direction and no overarching story. But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, was the decision to re-tell the Original Trilogy, drag Star Wars full-circle back to where it started, and spend too much time looking backwards. The sequel trilogy was an opportunity for Star Wars to lay the groundwork for future success, but instead it’s dragged the franchise backwards.

The Original Trilogy is a weight around Star Wars’ neck. The popularity of those three films compared to any others means that cowards in a corporate boardroom can’t see beyond it. Instead of looking at ways to take Star Wars forward to new adventures, all they know how to do is look backwards at the only successful films the entire franchise has ever produced.

Star Wars is being run by a corporate boardroom that clearly has no idea what to do with the franchise.

The end of the Skywalker Saga saw Luke, Han, and Leia killed off. It saw the final demise of Palpatine. And despite the story of Star Wars having been dragged through the mud, there was an opportunity that hasn’t really existed before – an opportunity to move on to greener pastures. With the only story Star Wars has ever told brought to a conclusion, it was hardly an unrealistic expectation to think we might get something new.

I’m disappointed, as you can tell. The lack of vision and the lack of boldness on the part of Disney and Lucasfilm means that we’re once again looking at the same miniscule fraction of the Star Wars galaxy that we’ve always been shown. There’s nothing interesting about that, and even though I have no doubt that, on an individual level, many of these projects will be at least decent and watchable, I just feel Star Wars could do better. These shows and films are a franchise aiming for a grade C. They’re middle-of-the-road attempts to scrape by, coasting on past success.

If the franchise ever wants to do more than get a basic pass, they’ll have to be bold and aim higher. Do something genuinely different. Step out of the ever-growing shadow of the Original Trilogy and do what Star Trek has been doing for thirty years – tell new stories.

The Star Wars franchise, including all films, series, and upcoming projects listed above, is the copyright of Disney and Lucasfilm. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Candace Against the Universe – a review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Candace Against The Universe as well as for the Phineas and Ferb television series.

This is a rare treat! There hasn’t been a new Phineas and Ferb story since 2015 when the series went off the air, and I genuinely wasn’t expecting it to return. Disney Channel shows are usually one-and-done things, even now that we’re in an era of reboots and unnecessary sequels. Although some of the characters from the series had crossed over to Milo Murphy’s Law, the announcement of Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Candace Against the Universe was an incredibly welcome surprise.

I first saw Phineas and Ferb shortly after its 2007 premiere. I had a cable television subscription at the time (remember those?) and one of the channels in the package I’d selected was the Disney Channel – not that I watched it all that much as an adult! But somehow I caught a preview or advert for the series, and it looked like a lot of fun so I gave it a try. I was glad I did, because far from being a silly little kids’ cartoon, Phineas and Ferb has a depth to it that I truly believe transcends its target audience. There’s a lot to like in the show for kids and adults, and as someone who first encountered it as an adult, I can attest to that.

Phineas and Ferb debuted in 2007 with the episode Rollercoaster. This was the opening shot of the series.

As I mentioned the last time I talked about Phineas and Ferb, it’s a show I drift back to on my bad days when my mental health suffers. The bright colours, happy storylines, cute animation style, and fun musical numbers can really take the edge off sometimes, and I’ve always appreciated that about the series.

So what about its latest offering then? Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat – what on earth is going on with that horrible title? Nine words is far too long for any film’s title, and it needed to be cut down as much as possible! Calling it something like Phineas and Ferb: Candace v. the Universe would have conveyed the same message in a more concise form; there was no reason to include “the Movie” in the title of… a movie. So long as it was even moderately well marketed the audience would have known it was a feature-length production.

The titular Candace.

Unlike some titles, such as the upcoming Mulan remake, there was never any question of a theatrical release for Candace Against the Universe (as I shall be calling it for the sake of brevity). It was always scheduled for a Disney+ debut, and I believe it was always planned to arrive in the summer. Though the 28th of August is certainly the tail end of summer, it made its release window despite all the pandemonium in the world, and that’s a great accomplishment!

If I had to summarise my thoughts in a couple of sentences, I’d say that the film blew me away. It was exactly what I’d hope for from any returning franchise: plenty of references to past successes, but with a new and exciting story tying it all together. There were numerous callbacks to past events in the series, but none of them felt like they got in the way of a brilliant, surprisingly emotional story.

Candace referred to the events of a number of Phineas and Ferb episodes in her opening song.

Candace Against the Universe riffs off a similar overarching story from Phineas and Ferb: Across the Second Dimension, the first feature-length film in the series that released in 2011. In that story, Candace, Perry, and the boys wound up in an alternate reality and had to get home, while stopping the villain – that dimension’s version of Dr Doofenshmirtz – conquering their home. This time, after Candace is abducted, they have to rescue her and escape an alien planet, then stop the planet’s ruler conquering their home. Both of these stories are epic in scope and allowed for powerful moments, and the fact that it’s not a wholly original premise doesn’t even matter – what matters is it was an amazing ride.

I’ve talked before about Phineas and Ferb delving into some quite deep and complex themes, and perhaps the biggest one featured in Candace Against the Universe is that of mental health. Candace’s unhappiness (or depression), and the fact that those closest to her hadn’t noticed, is a big part of her story and sets up the main plot of the film. Mental health can be a difficult subject for any film to tackle, let alone one primarily aimed at kids, but Candace Against the Universe managed to approach the topic in a way that was understandable even for younger viewers.

Candace’s mental health was the main focus of her story.

Candace being unhappy with herself and her lot in life was communicated in two main sequences: one at the beginning of the film, and one as it approached its climax. It’s very easy for depression to be missed, even when the person isn’t going out of their way to conceal how they feel. Candace’s family didn’t spot how unhappy she was, which ultimately became a contributing factor and made her feel worse. Phineas is the character this affects the most (as Ferb, naturally, has very few lines). The realisation that his sister is feeling awful while he’s been having a great time weighed on him for practically the entire film.

This wasn’t a bolt from the blue for returning fans, either. Candace has always been a character with a complex psyche, at least in the episodes that explored her side of the story in any detail. We’ve seen her being neurotic, manic at times, and dejected and depressed too, so this side of her character really was a natural fit. Obviously there’s far more to mental health than can be explored in an hour-and-a-half, but the elements that the film was able to include – as well as the tone – were pitch-perfect. We often see characters with depression stereotyped, even in films and television shows made for adults. Yet Candace Against the Universe tackled its subject matter in a wholly different way, still firmly making Candace the star while allowing her to explore her issue and get to the heart of why she’s unhappy – instead of just beating us over the head with the fact that she is unhappy.

Vanessa approaches Candace near the beginning of the film.

While the concept of a single issue causing depression, then that depression being easily overcome in one single moment of realisation and coming together (as the film depicts) is arguably an oversimplification, it’s nevertheless by far the best way I’ve seen depression handled in any film or television show for a very long time. The writers and producers deserve a lot of credit for putting out this frank yet understandable depiction, and for conveying the message that you don’t need to be the centre of the universe to matter. That’s what Candace learned – and I bet a lot of kids watching learned it right along with her.

Okay, that’s enough about that for now. Phineas and Ferb was a show with an incredible soundtrack – and Candace Against the Universe didn’t buck the trend. I actually think that Candace voice actress Ashley Tisdale’s singing is even better than it was a few years ago during the show’s original run, and she had a great song right at the beginning called Such a Beautiful Day.

Candace Against the Universe had some great musical numbers.

That song was the opening sequence of the film, and it did a great job not only setting up Candace’s story, but recapping the show for new viewers and those who haven’t seen the series in a while. There also seemed to be a hint – just a hint – at possible further stories in the Phineas and Ferb universe, as Candace sings “other nonsense coming soon” when listing some of the boys’ inventions. I wondered earlier in the year whether Candace Against the Universe might be a springboard for Phineas and Ferb Season 5, and this line was the first big hint that the film dropped at that possibility. Certainly going on the strength of the film and its story, if co-creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh wanted to make another season, Disney would surely be up for it!

Also during this opening song (or rather, during a break in it) we got a short scene between Candace and her best friend Stacy. Though Stacy wouldn’t have much to do in the film overall, I loved this scene. It was a perfectly normal interaction between them, but it was in this moment that I really felt like I was back in the Phineas and Ferb universe. Life was going on, and all the characters were right where I left them.

This scene with Stacy normalised everything and made it feel like Phineas and Ferb never went away.

Other songs were good too, and overall the film had a great soundtrack. The songs equalled the best offerings from the series, and anyone coming into Candace Against the Universe looking for good music certainly didn’t leave disappointed!

The biggest familiar trope missing from the film was the interaction between Perry the Platypus/Agent P and Dr Doofenshmirtz. Because the story involved a team-up between Phineas, Ferb, and their friends with Doofenshmirtz, Perry was relegated to a lesser role, hiding in the shadows trying to avoid being seen by anyone for much of the film. Of course it makes perfect sense, and after the closing of Across the Second Dimension required the kids to get a memory wipe in order for the show to continue its two stories concept effectively, nobody really wanted to see a repeat of that. However, it meant that one of the usual two stories we’d expect from most Phineas and Ferb productions wasn’t present, and there’s certainly part of me that feels that’s a shame. Though there was a very brief fight between them at the beginning of the film, it didn’t fulfil its usual role as the second story, and the absence of that story beat was definitely noticeable.

Perry had less to do than usual – and didn’t really battle Dr Doofenshmirtz.

That isn’t really a complaint, though. Perry still had a role in the story, and although we didn’t see him spend much time with the other characters, he got time with Doofenshmirtz and Vanessa near the end of the film. Perry’s plot in some ways is reminiscent of his role in Across the Second Dimension, where he similarly wasn’t battling against (the original) Dr Doofenshmirtz.

The other thing we didn’t really get to see all that much of was Phineas and Ferb inventing. Off-screen they built the giant clown-robot at the beginning of the film – which was destroyed in a clear homage to Avengers Infinity War! Again off-screen they built the robots they used to attack the villain near the end of the film. They also built the portal to Feebla-Oot, which ultimately didn’t work. Again, I don’t feel this detracted from the film – though it was certainly a brave choice. It was definitely a twist in the final act to see the boys’ robots so easily defeated.

The defeated robots.

Candace Against the Universe actually contained several references to Star Trek, which isn’t something I was expecting! Part of the story involves Baljeet’s obsession with the fictional “Space Adventure” franchise. This isn’t new to Phineas and Ferb and had been mentioned or seen several times before. It’s a generic sci-fi franchise which seems to include films and a television series, and while I would have said past Phineas and Ferb stories treated it more like Star Wars, in this film it was definitely used as a stand-in for Star Trek. The aesthetic of Space Adventure, including its starship design and the design of the bridge of the ship, pays homage to Star Trek, and the starship featured in the show even used the “USS” designation. Baljeet was definitely a Trekkie stereotype at points, but that’s okay!

Phineas and Ferb has often been random in its sense of humour, and Candace Against the Universe definitely continued that trend. Buford bringing a canoe into space is one example that I found funny, and every time the canoe showed up I was wondering if this would be the moment it would finally find a use. The joke about passing the speed of light was hilariously random too – seeing the different stages of animation all the way back to co-creators Marsh and Povenmire explaining the storyboard was breaking the fourth wall at its finest! Again, this is something Phineas and Ferb has done on a few occasions in the past, so this was a continuation of that theme.

Dan Povenmire (left) and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, the co-creators of Phineas and Ferb.

Doofenshmirtz’s lab being destroyed – as it so often was in the show – when the rocket launches was funny too, and shows how bad he is at planning! The post-credits scene where Lawrence steps through the boys’ portal into the still-burning lab was also incredibly funny, and was played pitch-perfectly by both the animators and voice actor Richard O’Brien. O’Brien actually created The Rocky Horror Picture Show – a little Phineas and Ferb trivia for you!

Am I overthinking it, or was the alien prison vehicle at least a little similar to the prison transport Jyn Erso is on near the beginning of Rogue One? Regardless, I loved the cowardly aliens that the gang met, and their city of Cowardalia. It was perhaps a little fast for Phineas and Isabella to inspire the cowardly aliens to take on their biggest foe, but they were cute so they get a pass!

The gang arrives in Cowardalia.

There were plenty of little jokes, too. The escape pods all launching at once because of the faulty alien Alexa device. Vanessa ending up on the planet and not being sent back to Earth. The photo Major Monogram has of Candace being attacked by a crab. The diversion song. The fact that when the aliens’ upper bodies explode it makes the sound “Candace!” Dr Doofenshmirtz insisting on being a leader while being vastly incompetent. All of these little jokes and dozens of others lent that same fun, random sense of humour to the film that fans of the show will have appreciated.

Vanessa’s calmness in the face of everything going on provided a contrast with Candace, and putting the two characters together worked well, especially in the beginning of the film. Olivia Olson, who provides Vanessa’s voice, has always felt like an underrated performer, but she gave it her all here. The jokes about Vanessa posting everything going on on her social media were pretty funny too – as well as setting up a way for Dr Doofenshmirtz to find her. The final act of the film also gave Vanessa a big role, taming a wild space dragon and flying the gang to safety.

Vanessa’s social media post.

The aesthetic chosen for the alien world (Feelba-Oot) was interesting. I kept trying to decipher the name of the planet – it feels like an acronym, but I can’t figure out what (if anything) it means! But back to the way it was designed, I liked the giant mushroom forest, and the brown-and-orange colour palette. It made for a suitably “alien” presentation, as well as being in the vein of some of the classic sci-fi films and series (including Star Trek) that Candace Against the Universe was drawing on for inspiration.

So the crux of the plot. The villain, named Super Super Big Doctor, has a plant which produces mind-controlling spores. She used the plant to conquer the planet, but the plant is old and dying. She believes Candace to be the only source of a special element that can restore the plant – but this turns out to be carbon dioxide, and after Candace tells her there’s loads of it on Earth, she tries to conquer Earth too.

Candace with Super Super Big Doctor.

We can skip the nitpicking and asking why Super Super Big Doctor didn’t realise other earthlings breathe out CO2. The answer is “because plot”, and it’s a kids’ movie so that absolutely gets a pass! The film was, as its title suggests, Candace’s story. And this setup takes Candace from depression to elation as she realises she’s incredibly important – then back to contending with the fact that she isn’t special. Candace comes to realise her unhappiness is tied to feeling inadequate and overshadowed by her brothers, who can perform incredible feats, and she longed to feel special. The mind-controlling plant and evil villain were just there to help her come to that realisation; this is still Candace’s story.

In that sense, Phineas and Ferb (and the rest of the gang) played second fiddle. That’s a bold move for a franchise returning from a five-year hiatus, to put Candace front-and-centre, and it could have backfired. But it didn’t – it worked spectacularly well. Candace provided the story with heart and emotion, and a genuinely satisfying character arc.

Candace with Phineas and Ferb.

It was great fun to have another adventure with Phineas, Ferb, Candace, Perry, and the rest of the gang. I had high hopes for Candace Against the Universe, and I did not come away disappointed. Sometimes a high bar can be impossible to reach, but this time my expectations were met, and the film has to go down as one of the best I’ve seen all year.

The big question now is… will there be more from Phineas and Ferb? And if there are to be further adventures, will they take place in the form of a fifth season or of specials and feature films like Candace Against the Universe? It’s hard to predict right now, but if the film has performed well, I’m sure the team behind it will want to keep going and create more stories in this world. I’ll be very interested to find out if there is more to come, but if not, it’s fair to say that this one-off return saw the franchise go out on a high that surpassed its finale from five years ago.

Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Candace Against the Universe is available to stream now on Disney+. The film is the copyright of the Walt Disney Company. This review contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Is the decision to bring Mulan straight to Disney+ a good one?

I’ve made no secret here on the website that I consider Disney’s live-action remakes of some of its classics to be very much lesser versions of those films. That’s for a variety of reasons, and I’m sure is at least partially influenced by the nostalgic feelings I have for some titles. 1998’s Mulan is an interesting film in many ways, but it’s always felt like a second-tier member of the Disney Renaissance, not quite reaching the same heights as The Lion King, Aladdin, or even Pocahontas. So its remake, which had been scheduled to premiere earlier this year, is a project I’ve been anticipating with muted excitement at best.

That was before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted everything. After abortive attempts to release the film in cinemas in March, then July, then finally August, Disney decided to try something they haven’t done before: bring a major release directly to their streaming service, Disney+. But Mulan won’t arrive on Disney+ ready to watch like any other title, instead it’s going to be paywalled with customers being asked to stump up an extra $30 on top of their regular Disney+ subscription fee in order to access it when it releases next month.

Mulan (1998) is getting a live-action remake.

On a purely mathematical level, I can understand the charge. Films are expensive to make, and Disney wants to recoup as much of that money as possible. $30 is around the price you might pay for 3-4 cinema tickets, so if you think that it’s the same money as a family going to see the film at the cinema, Disney obviously feels that it’s a fair price. But of course watching a film on streaming isn’t the same as going to the cinema, and I have to confess I was taken aback by how steep the cost of seeing Mulan is. As a single person, $30 (or whatever its equivalent in GBP will be) is excessive for seeing one film! That’s the equivalent of more than four months’ subscription to the streaming platform, and I have no doubt many will be as put off as I was.

My big question is this: why can’t Disney just be patient? It isn’t just film releases that have been disrupted, film production has been massively affected too. Disney has already postponed the release dates of many other titles that are currently in production as a result of the pandemic, and surely Mulan could have taken any one of those release slots once the disruption finally ends. Sitting on the film costs Disney very little – releasing it too soon could backfire and cost them massively.

Liu Yifei in the 2020 remake of Mulan.

Ever since broadband internet made it possible to stream and download large files, piracy has been a problem for big entertainment companies. Streaming services like Disney+ are able to survive in part because most people like to follow the rules, but also at least in part because they make it easy and affordable to do so. Who would even notice £4.99 a month – that’s how much Disney+ costs in the UK. Hardly anyone would, of course, and that’s how the service survives. But a sudden turnaround to charge more than $30 for a single film and suddenly a lot of people will be looking for other options.

Piracy is incredibly easy. A simple online search leads to dozens of websites that allow users to stream up-to-date films, and within hours of a film or television series going live, it’s been recorded and reuploaded countless times. When Mulan releases behind a paywall, it will very quickly be uploaded to pirate websites where people will be able to watch it or download it for free.

No, not that kind of piracy…

While Mulan’s release on streaming will almost certainly be lacklustre, it could have the unintended side-effect of harming Disney+ as a brand. Disney+ already is worse than its competitors in that the most recent seasons of its television series aren’t uploaded until months or even years after they debut on television, but if the service gets a reputation for paywalling content, many people will wonder what the point of paying for it is and will unsubscribe. Partly that’s on principle, and partly it’s because the cost of accessing Mulan is incredibly high.

Disney has also harmed its relationship with cinemas and distributors. The cinema industry is suffering greatly from months of closure, and here in the UK, while cinemas have been allowed to reopen since early July, many haven’t. Regular readers will know that disability precludes me going to the cinema these days, but in the past when I was able to, I favoured an independently-owned cinema in a nearby town – one of the few left in the UK. Its fortunes hang in the balance right now, and one thing that could have helped is a big release like Mulan to tempt people back. By cutting cinemas out of the equation and going direct to streaming, Disney has upset the apple cart. Why should cinemas go out of their way to show other Disney films in future?

Cinema owners will protest this decision vehemently.

At least one cinema chain – Odeon, which is owned by AMC – has stated that they will no longer show any films by Universal Pictures as a result of that company making a similar decision. Universal chose to release Trolls World Tour digitally as a result of the pandemic, and AMC and Odeon reacted swiftly, banning Universal films in their cinemas, of which there are many in the UK; Odeon is a big chain. Disney could end up in a similar situation, and if several big chains were to band together, they could effectively prevent Disney films being released almost anywhere. Any company, even a giant like Disney, needs to tread very carefully.

Disney has chosen to prioritise making as much money as possible as soon as possible ahead of all other concerns. And with the company losing money – Disney lost $4.7 billion in just three months this year – perhaps the higher-ups decided they needed to do as much as possible to offset that. Indeed, the decision to reopen as many of the company’s theme parks as they’re allowed to is also part of that – the losses made by having the parks open are clearly less than the losses made by keeping them shut. Evidently Disney has made the calculation that the short-term harm of releasing Mulan digitally is less than the harm of sitting on it for an unknown length of time.

For those willing to pay, Mulan will be available next month on Disney+.

The coronavirus pandemic has been hard to predict, but many medical experts and analysts are anticipating a renewed increase in cases as we move into the autumn and winter here in the northern hemisphere. Disney may have interpreted such statements to mean that regional lockdowns may not be going away any time soon, and even if the rules are relaxed, the general nervousness of the public about the disease – and the looming recession it’s triggered – may put people off going to the cinema anyway. With the USA, which is Disney’s biggest market, being much more seriously affected than the rest of the world, even if everywhere else were to get back to some degree of normality, it may take a lot longer before American cinemas will all be able to reopen.

All of these issues and more have fed into the decision, and I can understand it on a corporate level. But I think one of the key problems is that many higher-ups don’t appreciate just how much they’re asking people to pay to see a single film in their living rooms – or even on a phone screen. $30 is a lot of money to a lot of people, and while it may not be to someone who’s making megabucks at the top of a huge company, out here in the real world it is. $30 could be the back-to-school supplies for a child, a big takeaway meal for a family, or as already mentioned, more than four months of Disney+. People could do a lot with that money, and while many are happy to pay extra for a treat like a visit to the cinema, far fewer will be willing to cough up cinema-ticket prices for a film they’re watching in their living room or on their phone. Disney+ has been inoffensively priced until now, and that has won it many supporters and subscribers. Mulan is not inoffensively priced. In fact it’s priced in such a way as to be downright offensive to many people.

Disney evidently sees this as the least-bad option right now.

Speaking purely anecdotally, I haven’t found anyone willing to pay for Mulan. One person I asked suggested that if it were a better film, they might be willing to consider it, but definitely not for a remake of a B-tier film like Mulan. That was the closest I got to a “yes” out of everyone I spoke to. While there will be a market for it, as some people will desperately want to see this reimagining and others will be pestered into it by their kids, it won’t be enough for the film to break even and I have no doubt Mulan will have a seriously disappointing launch.

But even a serious disappointment may be good enough for Disney as they look for ways to slow their financial haemorrhaging. Mulan will undeniably bring in more money for the company than the precisely $0 it would if it remained unreleased. As long as it covers the costs of streaming it worldwide – which, given Disney+ already exists, it almost certainly will – it may be seen as a success. At the very least it will be something Disney can show to investors and shareholders to demonstrate that they’re trying new and creative ways to get through what could be many more difficult months that lie ahead.

Mulan and Disney+ are the copyright of the Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.