I don’t talk about football very often here on the website. In fact, I daresay I’ve discussed the FIFA football video games on more occasions than the sport itself! But with all of the discussion flying around online since last night’s bolt from the blue announcement of a possible European Super League, I felt compelled to comment.
The twelve clubs – six of which, I’m sad to see, are from my native England – have drawn a lot of criticism for this plan, and we’ll discuss in a moment the potential ramifications for them. But with so many people piling on with criticism mixed with ideas for “punishments” it feels like a really basic message is in danger of getting lost in the confusion. What it all boils down to is simple: fairness. That one word encapsulates everything wrong with a European Super League.
Every sport, whether it’s curling, showjumping, ice hockey, or football, has to be fair and has to be seen to be fair. There will always be bad individual decisions; referees who make a bad call, a goal disallowed or allowed to stand incorrectly, and so on. Those idiosyncrasies will always be part of football, and indeed of any team sport. But the rules underpinning competition have to be seen to be fair – they can’t disproportionately favour one team, country, or club over everyone else. Yet that’s exactly what the European Super League would do. It would play favourites.
A closed league in which most clubs can never be relegated no matter how poorly they perform, and in which those clubs are given vast sums of money from the league’s sponsors is simply not fair. If those clubs are then allowed to participate in other competitions, such as their domestic leagues or cups, they have an additional unfair advantage in those as well. So the European Super League is not just unfair in that it would keep its fifteen “members” there in perpetuity no matter what else was happening in the wider game, it would give each of those clubs a massive boost in whatever other competitions they participated in.
Money has already made the upper echelons of football incredibly difficult to break into. The fairytale of Leicester City winning the Premier League a couple of years ago came after decades of dominance by a handful of very wealthy clubs backed by even wealthier investors and owners. The reason why Leicester’s win was so truly unexpected is because pundits and commentators had felt that it would be impossible for any club without significant financial resources to be able to compete against the so-called “big six.” The European Super League would cement the “big six” at the top of the English game, doling out huge sums of money to them to keep them at the top of the league in perpetuity. There would never be another Leicester or Bolton Wanderers winning the Premier League – and that’s exactly the scenario that the European Super League is designed to create.
That’s bad sportsmanship. It’s antithetical to the nature of free and fair sporting competition. By further eroding a sport already awash with near-incomprehensible amounts of money, the European Super League would effectively kill any real competition at the top. The other 14 clubs of the Premier League will be locked in a perpetual battle for seventh place – and whoever finishes seventh might as well be crowned champions, because the top six places will be effectively beyond the reach of any club without the financial backing of this new institution.
FIFA, UEFA, and the Premier League all bear a degree of responsibility for what’s happening, though. And they are not innocent parties to this clusterfuck. I’m old enough to remember the controversy in 1992 when the Premier League was set up, breaking away from the Football League. The clubs were tempted by money then, just as they are now. For the Premier League to criticise the European Super League for doing something superficially similar is at least slightly hypocritical, and sadly this gives ammunition to proponents of the European Super League.
UEFA and FIFA are both institutionally corrupt, with members quite literally and demonstrably accepting bribes. The only reason next year’s World Cup will be hosted by Qatar (or the 2018 iteration was hosted by Russia) is because of bribes paid to voting members. That’s just one example, and both institutions have been plagued by bribery and corruption going back decades, putting their own interests ahead of the wider game.
So there isn’t really a “good guy” to back in this fight. It’s the billionaires versus the billionaires in a battle for power, control, and the right to make as much additional money as possible – on top of the money they already have. It almost doesn’t matter which side wins, because the “big six” English clubs, and their equivalents in other countries, will still dominate the game regardless thanks to their international owners and the vast sums of money in the game. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a “lesser of two evils,” nor that the European Super League is somehow okay.
Despite the money sloshing around football, there are still surprises. Leicester’s title-winning season is a recent one, but we can also point to the successes of clubs like Wigan and Portsmouth in the FA Cup, Leeds’ successful return to the Premier League in their first season after promotion, and in Europe the likes of Montpellier’s title win in Ligue 1. Even with all the money at the top of the game, football can still be unpredictable – and that’s why so many fans around the world love it.
Taking away the most basic tenet of sportsmanship and competition – fairness – would leave European football in a very dark place. Those fairytale seasons, already eroded by the long dominance of a select few wealthy clubs, would fade into history, with all but a handful of clubs effectively relegated to second-tier status.
This is why there’s so much backlash, even if not everyone commenting on the situation can fully put it into words. A European Super League in which fifteen clubs can compete against one another in perpetuity with no threat of relegation is not only unfair as a concept in itself, but that unfairness would not be contained and would spill over into every other league on the continent. The crux of why fans of all clubs – even those proposing to join the new league – are united in opposition is because everyone recognises the inherent unfairness of the proposal, and how that unfairness would kill sporting competition.
So what measures can domestic leagues, as well as bodies like FIFA and UEFA, take to prevent this from happening, especially given how far advanced the plans seem to be?
Because this is a fight over money – and the television and broadcast rights that give whoever wins the right to make money – simply expelling the teams involved, as some have suggested, doesn’t seem viable. The Premier League would lose out in that scenario, because the broadcast rights would suddenly bring in far less revenue if the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea aren’t involved. This is the game of brinksmanship that the European Super League is playing – effectively throwing down the gauntlet and saying “you can’t make money without us.”
That said, there are measures short of full expulsion that could be taken – but they’d only work if every league in Europe and FIFA can all agree. First of all, there could be automatic points deductions for all participating teams. A deduction of ten points is automatically applied to any English teams that go into administration (i.e. that become financially insolvent), and something similar could be applied in this case. This would mean all European Super League clubs begin their domestic campaigns with -10 or even -15 points, which might go some way to restoring some semblance of fairness at the top, allowing the rest of the league to potentially compete on fairer terms with an effective handicap – giving them back their shots at the championship.
Secondly, one proposal UEFA threw out last night was that any individual player who plays in the European Super League would be banned from international competition, including in the World Cup. This sanction would make a lot of players think twice before signing for a European Super League side, even if a lot of money were on the table. Some would still take the money, of course, but any player with dreams of representing their country would think twice.
This proposal in particular is a threat to the European Super League. If it could be expanded, with players who play in the European Super League banned from all other competitions including domestic leagues and cups, the only players who would ever agree to participate would be has-beens. The European Super League, if it were forced to operate under such restrictions, would end up looking like the Chinese league or, at best, Major League Soccer in the United States – where players who used to be good enough to play in the big European leagues essentially go to retire!
By pushing restrictions onto the individual players instead of (or as well as) the clubs themselves, and remaining united in doing so, the big European leagues, UEFA, and FIFA could drive a wedge between the clubs and their players, forcing players to choose. Maybe this kind of tactic feels shady and wrong, but if it kills a bad proposal it would be worth it. Though the big clubs do wield a lot of power, they don’t hold all the cards, and if players felt that signing for Manchester United would be bad for their career, you’d see better players moving away from those big clubs, and the already-boring European Super League would look worse and worse.
And that’s another good point. The European Super League will be boring, or at least unexciting. A league where there’s no relegation for the big clubs has no threat, and with no threat comes no drama. There’ll be no reason for players to push themselves in the final minute to score that amazing goal because… what’s the point? Once you’re in the European Super League you’re set for life, apparently. If you lose fifteen matches in a row there’s no consequence, except perhaps for the manager who’ll lose his job! By destroying one of the most basic elements of sporting competition – relegation – the European Super League doesn’t have much to offer anyway.
But whatever you think about these clubs and this announcement, it all comes back to one central point: a European Super League with permanent positions for wealthy clubs is inherently and inescapably unfair. There will be consequences, somehow, for any clubs that go down this road. I just hope that, when the dust settles, football isn’t too badly damaged by this latest self-inflicted wound.
All brands, clubs, etc. mentioned above are the trademark or copyright of their respective owners. Some stock images courtesy of Pixabay. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: Though there are no major spoilers, minor spoilers may be present for some of the entries listed.
The end of June is the halfway point of the year, and it’s a nice opportunity to take stock for a few minutes. This isn’t going to be a major recap of what’s come before (I’ll save that for my “end-of-year” article in December) but I thought it could be fun to talk about some of the things I’m looking forward to in the next six months.
I don’t really enjoy the summer season. The weather is too hot (yes, even in the UK it gets hot sometimes), there are annoying insects buzzing around all the time, and the sun rises at an obscene hour. Seriously, it gets light here by 4 o’clock! The summer months are also when television schedules tend to be lighter, as more folks concentrate on their summer holidays. The standard “television season” runs from September to April or May, and while of course there are still lots of things to watch at this time of year, there tends to be less of interest to me. The decline of traditional broadcast television as we enter an age of on-demand streaming has lessened the impact of this, however, which is fantastic!
The biggest story of 2020 is of course the coronavirus pandemic. This has massively disrupted production and release schedules across the entertainment industry, and what should have been a big summer season for films is practically nonexistent right now. Even the Olympic Games, which were to take place in Tokyo, and the Euro 2020 football tournament have been postponed until next year, both of which would have been big events to enjoy this summer.
So under the circumstances, what am I most looking forward to? It has to be Star Trek, of course! You probably already knew that. Star Trek: Discovery’s third season is due out any time now, and I’m still hopeful that we’ll see Lower Decks debut before the end of the year as well, per the original plan. I’m really interested – and a little nervous – to see what kind of story Discovery will tell having left its 23rd Century setting behind. I’ve already taken a look at the trailer for the upcoming season, and you can find my thoughts on it by clicking or tapping here. I really expected that we’d have seen a tentative release date – or even just a release window – when Star Trek: Picard was on the air, as using that show to plug Discovery would’ve made sense. The latest news seems to be that post-production work is practically finished; I’m anticipating a release date any day now.
We should also be seeing the fifth season of The Expanse before the end of the year, and perhaps a second season of Netflix’s The Witcher series. The Expanse is an absolutely fantastic near-future sci-fi show, and if you haven’t seen it yet I honestly cannot recommend it enough. After an extensive fan campaign to save the show from cancellation, Amazon bought the rights and it’s currently available on Amazon Prime Video – which is where you can also watch the first season of Star Trek: Picard if you haven’t already.
The fourth season of Rick & Morty wrapped up only a few weeks ago, having been split into two blocks of five episodes. It had debuted back in November last year, and while I’d be surprised to see the fifth season show up so soon after the fourth – especially given the series is notorious for its long waits between seasons – I can’t help but be a little hopeful that Season 5 could follow Season 4’s model and kick off in the run-up to Christmas.
The Terror – a horror anthology series – had a great first season and an okay second season, and while there hasn’t been any official confirmation yet, it would be great to see Season 3 some time this year too. The Terror made great use of two historical settings; another mini-series coming out in August with an historical basis is The Good Lord Bird. This will follow a fictionalised portrayal of real-life abolitionist John Brown in the years immediately prior to the American Civil War. As a history buff, I’m hyped for that!
The 1932 novel Brave New World is being adapted as a series, and will star Alden Ehrenreich (of Solo: A Star Wars Story fame). Not to be confused with Strange New Worlds, the upcoming Star Trek series, this is one that I’m tentatively adding to my watchlist when it debuts in July. Also coming in July is Intelligence, a sitcom set at GCHQ – the UK’s cyber-security headquarters and starring David Schwimmer.
July is a big month, as it could additionally see the Disney+ original Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe. The exact release date hasn’t been revealed yet, which leads me to think it may have been delayed. Regardless, I’m a huge fan of Phineas and Ferb so I’m looking forward to it! Although several characters from the animated show have popped up in Milo Murphy’s Law, this will be the first proper reunion since 2015. Could a fifth season be on the cards if this one-off special is successful?
Changing genres – and tones – entirely, American Crime Story: Impeachment has nothing to do with the current occupant of the White House, but will instead focus on the impeachment of Bill Clinton. The first season of this anthology series back in 2016 looked at the trial of OJ Simpson, and I’m curious to see its dramatic take on the Clinton scandal. On CBS All Access – the new digital home of Star Trek in the USA – a new adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand is scheduled to premiere. I put the first adaptation (from the 1990s) on my tongue-in-cheek list of things to watch while self-isolating, as it’s set in the aftermath of a plague. I’m curious to see how this new adaptation will unfold.
Speaking of plagues, The Walking Dead is getting a second spin-off. While I no longer follow the main series, as I feel it became repetitive and uninteresting somewhere around its fourth or fifth season, the new spin-off titled The Walking Dead: World Beyond promises to take a different look at the apocalypse. Fear the Walking Dead told a story set during the first days of the zombie apocalypse – something arguably missing from the original show – and World Beyond plans to look at the world more than a decade later, focusing on a new cast of younger characters. I’m curious, at least, to see what the producers have in store.
In film, there’s slim pickings at the moment. With cinemas tentatively set to reopen over the summer, at least here in the UK, things could pick up – but I think we need to be prepared for further delays and disruption if the pandemic situation changes. That being said, there are some films due out in the next few months as things begin to get back to normal. The King’s Man is the third entry in the Kingsman series of action-comedies, and has the potential to be a fun romp when it’s released in September. I enjoyed the first entry in the series as a send-up of Bond-esque films.
That leads us neatly to No Time To Die, which is set to wrap up the Daniel Craig era of James Bond films. Postponed from its original April slot, the film won’t release until November (which means I won’t get to see it until 2021). I’m expecting it to be an explosive finale – leading to a soft reboot of the 007 franchise in the coming years.
Bill and Ted Face the Music is the third entry in the series that helped make Keanu Reeves a household name. This one strikes me as an odd choice; the previous Bill and Ted films were very much of their time – the late ’80s/early ’90s. Returning to the franchise almost thirty years later is a bold move – will it pay off?
Starring Russell Crowe, Unhinged is billed as a thriller about a woman being stalked after a road rage incident. It has the potential to be interesting when it’s released in August. An adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, a follow-up to the successful 2017 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, is set for release in October. Though I’m not a big fan of horror in general, Antebellum looks potentially interesting, at least in its premise – a modern-day black woman is sent back in time to be a slave in the American south.
Disney is releasing another live-action remake of one of their classics: this time it’s Mulan, which is scheduled to arrive in late July; the film will feature Rosalind Chao of Star Trek fame in a co-starring role. The original Mulan was great, but I haven’t really felt any of the live-action remakes that I’ve seen so far have lived up to their source material. Hopefully Mulan can buck the trend!
Another remake of Dune will be released in cinemas in December, and this time there will be an all-star cast including Oscar Isaac, Javier Bardem, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, and Stellan Skarsgård. I’m half-curious, half-nervous about this one. The novel Dune has been notoriously difficult to adapt, and the 2020 version aims to be the first part of a duology – the second part of which, I fear, may never see the light of day if the first part isn’t well-received.
The video game industry is already gearing up for the release of the next generation of home consoles. The Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5 are set to launch in time for the holidays – probably in mid/late November. Along with the new consoles will be a slew of launch titles and exclusives – PlayStation seems to have the upper hand in that department.
Cyberpunk 2077 will be a huge title when it releases in November. From famed developer CD Projekt Red, this game has been on a lot of folks’ radars since it was announced way back in 2013. After being delayed twice already, and with the new console generation looming, the pressure is on to meet this latest release date.
Rocket Arena, which was announced during June’s EA Play presentation, looks like a fun multiplayer title in the vein of Overwatch. EA Play also showed off the trailer for Star Wars: Squadrons, which is set to release in October. A Star Wars game all about piloting X-Wings and TIE Fighters has been something people have been asking for for ages – older titles like Rogue Squadron were great, and this looks to be a modern incarnation of titles like that. Also coming in the Star Wars franchise is Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga.
As a history buff, and a fan of strategy games, I’m interested to see what A Total War Saga: Troy brings to the table. The Total War series has been running for a long time, and I remember fondly its earlier iterations like Shogun: Total War and Medieval: Total War – the latter of which must’ve been one of my most-played games of the early-2000s!
Ghost of Tsushima could well fill the role for the PlayStation 4 that The Last of Us did for the PlayStation 3: being the console’s swansong and ending the generation on a high. A third-person action-adventure following a samurai as he battles the Mongols, this game has been looking amazing in pre-release marketing.
There’s still the possibility that Watch Dogs Legion and the remake of Star Wars Episode I Racer will be out before the end of the year. And there will be new entries in EA Sports’ annual franchise games, such as FIFA 21. I will be curious to see how, if at all, the sports games address the massive disruption to this most recent season in their career modes and commentaries. Having not picked up a FIFA title since FIFA 18, I had been considering FIFA 21 – it’s hard to justify buying new iterations annually, but after a three-year gap I should hope to find improved gameplay!
There will be a weird Marvel’s Avengers game – weird because the developers didn’t get the rights or licenses to make their characters look like the actors from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, despite the game seeming to make use of an otherwise similar aesthetic. Hopefully that won’t be too jarring! Twin Mirror and Tell Me Why are also scheduled for release this year, and are from the team behind Life is Strange and Vampyr. And finally, a second remake of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 & 2 is due out in October. Unlike the version currently available, which took the older titles of the Dreamcast era and upscaled them, the new game bills itself as a full-on remake.
So that’s it. Well, that isn’t necessarily it, but that’s all I could think of that I’m looking forward to between now and Christmas based on what’s been announced (and what we can guess or assume is coming). Hopefully there will be a few surprises in there too.
If I had to pick a number one right now, it would be Star Trek: Discovery’s third season. But there are plenty of other things to look forward to!
All titles and properties listed above are the copyright of their respective studio, distributor, broadcaster, developer, publisher, or company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
One short section of this article contains spoilers for the new Star Wars film, The Rise of Skywalker. This section is clearly marked, so if you don’t want it spoiled please skip those two paragraphs.
I started writing an article discussing the various issues that prequels tend to have. But the bulk of it ended up being about one particular topic, so I decided to rework it into its own standalone piece.
When a franchise and the world it inhabits are new, we as the audience – whether we’re readers, viewers, listeners, or players – are learning about the setting just as much as we are about the characters. What factions are in play, who owns what fictional corporation, who’s the current king – hundreds of little pieces of background story or lore come together to build up that world in our minds, and believing in that world for the duration of the story is a key part of suspension of disbelief.
Suspension of disbelief, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, in essence means that as the audience, we put our knowledge of the real world as well as our logic and critical thinking to one side for the sake of enjoying the story. It’s a phrase which explains the basics of how we can take seriously a story about wizards and magic spells, or spaceships and aliens, when none of those things exist in our daily lives. Being able to suspend our disbelief – that is to say, to give a free pass to the illogical and the unreal for the sake of a story – is a key part of how we, as human beings, engage with fiction. It applies to children watching My Little Pony and it applies to literature professors reading War and Peace. It’s a fundamental part of human imagination, and without it fiction could not exist as we know it.
One major part of world-building in any fictional setting is the establishment of fundamental rules about how things work. In the Star Trek series, for example, starships are powered by dilithium crystals, which allow them to travel at faster-than-light speeds. In Middle-earth, wizards can perform spells and there are a variety of sentient non-human creatures. Star Wars has the Force and hyperspace, and even a cartoon like Phineas and Ferb establishes early on that it’s possible for its protagonists to invent and engineer massive projects. In each of these cases, something about the setting has been established in the mind of the audience, and we accept it in the context of our suspension of disbelief.
When any fictional world has established its ground rules, it’s horribly jarring for the audience when it subsequently breaks those rules. Internal consistency is incredibly important to maintaining suspension of disbelief, and a failure to abide by the rules of the road in a fictional setting is immersion-breaking.
Prequels quite often fall victim to this, but it isn’t solely a prequel problem.
It’s obviously very tempting for writers and producers, when dealing with a setting that doesn’t have to abide by the rules of our real world, to use magic or technobabble as a cover-all, explaining away anything and everything by saying “magic works this way” or “starships don’t work that way”. And in a brand-new franchise, they can get away with that to an extent, provided it doesn’t seem to come completely from nowhere – if it does, it’s a deus ex machina. And that’s a whole other problem.
But in some ways, dei ex machina (yes, that’s the plural form) are exactly what we’re dealing with here. Briefly, a deus ex machina is a solution to an unsolvable or difficult problem that comes from nowhere – such as by introducing something brand new and never mentioned before, or by giving a character powers, abilities, weapons, etc. that they never had before.
When a franchise has run for a number of years, the basics of how its setting works has been established in the minds of its audience. We know, for example, that the Force in Star Wars can be used to choke people, to create lightning, and to confuse people. It can clearly do many other things, but introducing any new Force power has to be treated with caution – because if it seems to contradict what we’ve already seen on screen, it can be an issue. And these issues are not simply a case of “why haven’t we seen this before?”, but also of “in situation X in a previous film, this ability would have been useful”.
Spoilers ahead for The Rise of Skywalker for anyone unfamiliar with its plot.
In The Rise of Skywalker, we have precisely this scenario unfold. The Force can be used to both heal wounds and revive the dead. How many times in previous Star Wars films would such a power have been useful to our protagonists? How many characters could have been saved from dying unnecessary deaths if such a power had been deployed sooner?
The decision to include the ability to use the Force to heal and revive is contrived, it’s clearly done for storytelling reasons to get around what would otherwise be plot holes, but in so doing it’s created a bunch of new plot holes.
Spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker end here.
There’s always going to be a huge temptation to use contrived technological explanations or the use of magic to get away with what is essentially bad writing. But by failing to abide by the rules of the world they’re supposedly setting their story in, writers are being lazy and disrespectful. Magic and technology aren’t a cure-all to explain away anything a writer wants. They are part of the foundation of the setting, and chipping away too much at the foundation risks the entire story collapsing.
I don’t hold any respect for the argument that “it’s just a story”, either. Of course it’s just a story, and of course characters go from one place to another at the whim of the writers. But that is also no excuse for bad writing and mishandling the basics of the setting. The best stories are the ones we can get lost in, and part of that means that they have to make sense in the context of their world. When the underlying rules are broken, and the story fails to abide by its own world-building, it’s jarring, it’s immersion-breaking, and it ruins any suspension of disbelief. If a writer cannot make their story work without changing the fundamentals of the world they’re supposed to be writing in, then they have written a bad story.
In the current age of online fan communities, people can become very attached to a franchise and its world. It should be well known by now to writers and everyone on the production side of a franchise that anything like this is going to be seized upon and criticised.
This isn’t to say that there can’t be innovation. In Star Trek, for example, we’ve seen greater and greater warp speeds allow starships to travel further and faster in the 24th Century than in the 23rd. But that doesn’t break immersion because it doesn’t change anything fundamental about how warp drive works – it’s still a dilithium-powered faster-than-light engine. And in a way, the less detail we as the audience know about how some magical or technological thing works, the more wiggle-room writers and producers have to adapt it to fit their story. There will always be a bending of rules in this regard – to use the warp drive example again, precise warp speeds are a bit of a mess. The fundamental principle is intact, but the minutiae is a bit muddled, with different episodes giving different timeframes for travelling at different warp speeds, essentially making a real-world comparison impossible or very difficult (though reference works for Star Trek have tried). Just as one example, warp 10 is supposed to be so fast that a starship could travel to any point in the galaxy instantaneously, yet at warp 9.975 (the top speed of the USS Voyager) a 75,000 light-year journey will take 70+ years. And the Borg are capable of “transwarp” speeds, which are much faster than warp 9.975 but don’t seem to allow for instantaneous travel anywhere in the galaxy. As I said, messy.
But we’re getting off the subject.
When a setting has established how its technology, magic, or other such things work, stories in that setting need to stick to that. They can elaborate on how things work, and they can add new technologies or magic spells provided nothing overwrites what’s already there, but they have to stick to the fundamentals because failure to do so takes what could be a good story and spoils it.
This can be applied to characters, too. If a character’s backstory is established, that needs to be stuck to. It’s no good to say that character X is a smuggler, then two episodes later change that and make him a doctor or a marine biologist simply to fit a particular story. A character trait appearing out of nowhere at the very least is noticeable, and at worst is another immersion-breaking problem, potentially ruining a story.
Outside of the real fundamentals of a character though, we start to stray into subjective territory. One person’s idea of a believable and enjoyable character arc may not be the same as another’s. Luke Skywalker’s depiction in The Last Jedi is a case in point – I found his characterisation to be incredibly relateable in that film, as I felt it showed how anyone could become jaded and regretful, and how anyone could suffer the consequences of a significant error in judgement. But others felt that there’s no way Luke Skywalker could ever behave like that, that he’d never have considered cutting down Ben Solo – even for a brief moment – and that he’d never just go and live in isolation. We can agree or disagree, and that could be a whole article in itself.
We’ve gotten a little off-topic again, but the point I’m trying to make is that a story that doesn’t stay consistent with the world that has already been established, and strays into overwriting established ground rules of that world, ruins my sense of immersion and completely takes me out of whatever I’m reading or watching.
I love to see franchises evolve over time, and establish new elements of their worlds. But when it’s not done right it comes across as simply being bad and lazy writing, and using all the magic and technology in the world won’t stop it feeling that way. Once a ground rule has been established, once the audience knows how something works in that world, any future stories have to be constrained by that.
You’d think that in today’s media landscape, every significant franchise would have people poring over stories specifically to look for details that go against what’s already been set up. A franchise like Marvel – though I’m not personally a huge fan – is at the very least well-managed, and they absolutely deserve credit for the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been constructed. On the other hand, we have a franchise like Star Wars, which has unfortunately suffered as a consequence of production decisions, including the decision to bring in some technological and Force-based story points which clearly clash with what has already been established.
For me, a story that can’t even stick to the basic way its own setting or world works is a fundamentally flawed story. And that really is my biggest pet peeve when it comes to works of fiction.
All properties mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studios, producers, and/or distributors. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: There are some minor spoilers ahead for the titles on this list.
Tis the season to be jolly… and all that. There are some fun Christmas films and television specials, and with it being only four days till the big day, I thought I’d share a few of my favourites. I’m sure most will be familiar to you, but they’re all worth a watch at this time of year.
With all of the controversy around projects like Star Wars, it’s nice to kick back with an old favourite at this time of year. Some of the titles below are full-on guilty pleasures, the kind of film you’d never watch if it wasn’t Christmas-themed. But there’s nothing wrong with that every once in a while.
These titles are in no particular order, but it’s a list so I had to number them.
Number 1: Carols From King’s (Annual)
I’m by no means a religious person. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I set foot in a church. But when I was at school, every Christmas just before the end of term we all trooped down to the local church and attended a Christmas carol service. My English teacher would pick on a few of us every year to read aloud some kind of Christmassy poem or short section from a story, so every year while at school I got to take part. The only benefit was that we got to miss a few lessons in the run-up to the event, but that alone made it worthwhile.
Carols From Kings is basically the kind of Christmas carol service I remember from my schooldays – just much better quality(!) There’s a choir, and they sing a selection of Christmas carols interspersed with a few readings and churchy things. While the selection of carols varies somewhat year on year, most of the traditional English carols make an appearance, such as Once In Royal David’s City, or The First Nowell.
As a fan of Christmas music in general, Carols From Kings is a pleasant, calm television programme of the sort that I’d never be interested in at any other time of year. At the end of the day, all it really is is a church choir singing Christmas carols – but that’s okay. Of course if you just wanted to hear the music you could find 1,001 versions of all of these carols on any music streaming platform, but seeing it and knowing it was recorded live does make it a different experience, and focuses attention on the music and the event itself rather than letting the songs be background noise for whatever else you might be doing.
There are new editions of Carols From King’s recorded every year (or most years, at least). Several past years, including 2018, are available on YouTube at time of writing, and I believe the 2019 edition is to be broadcast on Christmas Eve here in the UK.
Number 2: The Polar Express (2004)
This film was a novel take on the “does Santa Claus exist?” theme that a lot of Christmas titles explore. Following a young boy who finds it hard to believe in Santa, The Polar Express takes the unnamed child on a whirlwind adventure to the North Pole, complete with snow, ice, and a weird train roof-riding hobo.
Notable at the time of its release for its CGI animation – which some critics called “creepy” due to its attempts at realism – the film has aged well and has rightly become a modern-day Christmas classic, one which is fun to return to year upon year. I’d especially recommend it for families – though with the caveat that very young children may find a few scenes frightening.
Tom Hanks is on form here, voicing several characters and giving each a unique sound. You might recognise him in the persona of the train’s conductor, such is the nature of semi-realistic CGI animation, but some great voice acting ensures his other characters are unrecognisable.
Trains – especially toy steam engines – have somewhat of an association with Christmas, so The Polar Express doesn’t come from nowhere. However, its unique approach to Christmas, Santa Claus, and the North Pole, as well as some comical moments, make for a fun modern Christmas film with heart. The message is that Santa is real, and for little ones wavering on that issue it might be a reassurance. And though it’s primarily a fun adventure for kids, there’s some entertainment for grown-ups to have here as well.
Number 3: Father Christmas (1991)
A semi-sequel to 1982’s The Snowman, Father Christmas sets out to answer a simple question: what does Santa do for the other 364 days of the year? Apparently the answer is that he takes a massive round-the-world holiday. And gets drunk.
As a kid, the scene where Father Christmas (as Santa is known in the UK) gets completely trashed and starts hallucinating/dreaming and throwing up was a really weird thing to witness. And that sequence may be why this animated short doesn’t seem to be readily available at the moment. It is, of course, online on various streaming sites – none of which I’d happily recommend, so take your own chances – but it is on DVD at least here in the UK.
Clocking in at only 25 minutes, it’s a bit steep to pay a lot of money for a copy, but it is a fun, wholly British, and entirely tongue-in-cheek look at Santa’s everyday life. For some reason he lives in a terraced house in the UK. And has a pet dog and cat. And his neighbours seem blissfully unaware of his true identity.
The animation style is, frankly, outdated. It’s very much a product of its time, with a particular hand-drawn style that may not be to everyone’s taste. And as mentioned, a few scenes may be offputting for sensitive young ones. But there is a bloomin’ great song (which you can almost certainly find on YouTube).
Number 4: The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
I’m kidding – no one should watch this nonsense.
Thankfully non-canonical, the Star Wars Holiday Special takes classic characters from the original film and sets up the premise of Life Day – a celebration on Chewbacca’s home planet.
It has been rightly ridiculed for its bad script, bad effects, and for being an all-round failure.
It is, however, a wholly unique piece of television. Sometimes bad films make for entertaining viewing simply because of how bad they are, and if you have a few Star Wars-loving friends (and a healthy amount of alcohol or other substances) maybe this could be a fun romp for you.
And since this came out before Empire Strikes Back is is technically the first Star Wars sequel.
Still, it’s better than The Phantom Menace.
Real Number 4: Miracle on 34th Street (1947; 1994)
I actually had a hard time deciding which version of this Christmas classic to put on this list. The 1994 version is a rare example of a successful remake – thanks largely to the wonderful performance of the late Richard Attenborough.
I’m not a huge fan of black-and-white films in general. Not so much the lack of colour itself, but primarily because older films tend to be very dated in their effects, sets, and especially their acting style. I know that’s a horribly subjective statement, but as a very general rule I’d say most films (and TV series) prior to the mid-1960s don’t really work for me. The original Miracle on 34th Street was an exception, however. I actually saw the remake first, probably not long after it was released, and for years I wasn’t even aware there was an older version. When I did encounter it, I was initially put off by the black-and-white and the year it came out, but when I gave it a chance I found the same heartwarming tale underneath.
When a Thanksgiving parade needs a replacement Santa Claus, a man named Kris Kringle steps up – and claims to be the real deal. After being briefly institutionalised, a court case find that (for differing reasons in the two versions) they cannot prove he isn’t Santa – so therefore he can go free.
Actor Edmund Gwenn won both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for his role as Kris Kringle in the original film, and though his performance is in many ways iconic, Richard Attenborough took over the role for the 1994 version and also gave an incredible performance.
Number 5: Love Actually (2003)
So here’s a conundrum – is Love Actually a Christmas film, or is it a romantic comedy with a Christmas background? I can’t decide.
Some films seem to pick a Christmas setting and hope it will cover all manner of sins. Not so for Love Actually, because while Christmas serves as a backdrop for the film and the various sets of characters, it’s actually (pun intended) rather good.
Taking multiple plot threads and a huge cast of characters, the completely different stories slowly work their way together over the course of the film. And there are some wonderful performances in there, as well as some funny ones. Hugh Grant’s take on the British Prime Minister came mere months after then-PM Tony Blair took Britain controversially into the Iraq War. And the scene in which Grant’s character stands up to a rude, pushy American President (a pitch-perfect performance from Billy-Bob Thornton) was, in a very real sense, something that large sections of the country were looking for and responded to.
Alan Rickman also gives one of his best performances here, and his on-screen chemistry with Emma Thompson is part of what gives the film its heart.
I didn’t expect Love Actually to become as culturally significant as it is when I first saw it. I dismissed it as “just another rom com”, having seen Hugh Grant in what felt like several dozen similar pictures by that point. But, helped by its Christmas setting no doubt, Love Actually is another modern classic which I think families will enjoy at this time of year for a long time to come.
Number 6: A Christmas Carol (1999)
There are many adaptations of Charles Dickens’ famous novel – the book credited with bringing Christmas back into the popular imagination after a period in which it wasn’t widely celebrated. And many of those versions are good. Some are funny, some are animated, and some take great liberties with the source material. But if I had to pick just one adaptation, the 1999 made-for-TV version is my choice.
Starring Sir Patrick Stewart (hot off his role as Capt. Picard in Star Trek: Insurrection) this version of the story sticks fairly closely to the original novel. There’s nothing especially ground-breaking here, nothing that will change the way future adaptations are viewed. But as a pure adaptation of the novel, I don’t think the performances can be bettered.
Some of the effects, especially those for the ghosts, may look a little dated by now, but overall the film does a great job telling the classic story of bitter old miser Ebenezer Scrooge as he learns to embrace the spirit of Christmas. I’m a big fan of Sir Patrick (as you probably know by now if you’re a regular around here) but his performance here is a great example of why. He carries this film all the way, appearing in practically every scene, and if you can get over the fact that he’s not Jean-Luc Picard and simply enjoy the story being presented, you’re in for a treat because his performance is incredible.
Some actors are inexorably linked to their most iconic roles, and if you’re a huge Star Trek fan perhaps this version will be jarring for you. But stick with it if you can, because in my opinion this is the best adaptation of A Christmas Carol.
Number 7: Phineas and Ferb Christmas Vacation (2009)
Christmas Vacation is actually one of the best episodes as well, a feature-length episode in which the evil Dr Doofenshmirtz builds a machine to make everyone in town naughty – thus cancelling Christmas. The boys manage to save the day, of course, and there’s plenty of mayhem and fun along the way.
The soundtrack to this special episode is great, too, featuring a couple of Christmas classics and a few original songs – including a Christmas-themed version of the show’s opening song.
If you’re a sucker for the “Christmas is in danger, then someone saves it” plot cliché – and I absolutely am – then this will be a fun time. Yes it’s a kids’ show, but Phineas and Ferb has always been a series that holds some appeal to adults too, so it’s not without merit here. It’s by no means an original premise, but it is a uniquely Phineas and Ferb take on that premise, and as a fan of the series it’s great to come back to this special at this time of year.
The soundtrack album (which also includes a few tracks from a couple of other holiday episodes) is also well worth a listen. Yes, I bought it.
Number 8: Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Every family has different Christmas traditions, and these traditions vary an awful lot from country to country. It wasn’t until I spent a Christmas in the United States that I became aware of this charming stop-motion film, and I think from people I’ve spoken to that it doesn’t have as big of a following over here.
Despite first encountering Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer as an adult, I had a fun time with this film and enjoyed a look at another country’s idea of a Christmas classic. And a classic it certainly is – it was on TV dozens of times in the run-up to Christmas when I lived in the States, and almost everyone I spoke to reacted with incredulity when I said I’d never seen it.
It’s a re-telling of the Rudolph story with a few original characters that haven’t appeared elsewhere, like Yukon Cornelius, and Hermey the elf who wants to be a dentist. After facing rejection, the characters run away together, only to be welcomed back after their adventures in a heartwarming tale of… bullies that decide to stop bullying? I guess.
Number 9: Delia’s Classic Christmas (2009)
I wanted to put at least one cookery programme on this list, because of all the various holidays and events throughout the year, none are so intrinsically linked to food as Christmas.
Delia Smith is the original British television cook, appearing on TV since at least the 1980s. Her 2009 outing – Delia’s Classic Christmas – is exactly what it sounds like. British Christmas classic dishes, presented in her trademark gentle style.
As a collection of classics, don’t expect much outside the mainstream of British cuisine. That’s actually what I like about this television special, because in many ways, Christmas is the one time of year where traditions dominate and it’s great to celebrate that. In this case, we’re talking about food traditions like roast turkey with all the trimmings. For my American readers, Turkey has been traditional Christmas fare in the UK for at least the last century. Though some families will still opt for ham or beef as their main meat of choice, turkey is still the king. And because we don’t have Thanksgiving, this is for most people their main turkey dinner of the season – possibly of the whole year.
But to get back to Delia’s Classic Christmas for a moment, Delia Smith’s style of presenting is just pleasant and enjoyable to watch. This is pure light entertainment at its festive best, and even if cookery shows wouldn’t normally be your thing, maybe you can make an exception at this time of year. It does wonders to get me excited for my Christmas dinner, anyway!
Number 10: Die Hard (1988)
I debated whether or not to put Die Hard on this list. Is it a Christmas film? Or is it an action film with a couple of Christmas references? That argument will rage on and on, I fear.
Christmas film or not though, Die Hard is a classic of the action genre. While its sequels haven’t really lived up to the original, that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment here. Bruce Willis is on form as action hero John McClane – trapped in a building under siege and where terrorists have taken hostages (including his wife), McClane slowly cuts his way through the terrorist troupe.
Alan Rickman features on this list for the second time, in his iconic role as terrorist leader Hans Gruber. Though protagonist and antagonist only meet at the film’s climax, their radio communication earlier in the story is fantastic and the way Willis and Rickman portray their characters’ hatred for one another in this limited format is really something to witness.
Die Hard could’ve ended up like so many other action films of its day – a fun but mediocre gun-fest. But there’s something about the two leads, perhaps aided by the Christmas backdrop, that elevates the title to something better.
Number 11: Jingle All The Way (1996)
In the entry above for the Star Wars Holiday Special, I mentioned that sometimes a bad film can be entertaining. And make no mistake, Jingle All The Way is, by practically every conceivable measure, a bad film.
It’s on this list purely as a guilty pleasure, and were it not for its Christmas theme it would probably be long-forgotten. In Jingle All The Way, Arnold Schwarzenegger (future Governor of California) has to get his son a must-have Christmas toy… but they’re all sold out. What follows is a slapstick comedy in which Arnie fights with another kid’s dad to find the last one on Christmas Eve.
It really is as bad as it sounds – Arnie’s acting has always been wooden at best, and this is certainly not his best performance by a long way. The premise is dumb, and the comedy is really quite stupid in parts, but what’s hiding just below the surface is a story worth telling – one of a family man recognising his flaws and trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his son. Christmas is both the setting and the driving force for the main story, but the idea of a family coming back together from the brink of falling apart is a timeless one in many ways, and one that epitomises Christmas.
Number 12: Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire (1989)
Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire is actually the first ever episode of the long-running animated sitcom. And it is a classic in its own right, as Homer tries to turn his financial troubles into a successful family Christmas.
Much of what makes The Simpsons great is on display here. At the end of the day, the series has been so successful and lasted so long because it has heart. There are plenty of funny moments, but despite his failings, it’s easy to root for Homer. He’s a likeable protagonist in this episode.
Arguably this isn’t The Simpsons at its best, because the show probably took at least to the end of the first season to really hit its stride, but despite that, and despite the fact that many of what would become the show’s principal supporting cast aren’t present, it’s a solid episode.
And as a Christmas story, it’s oddly timeless. The down-on-his-luck dad, trying to hide his finances from his family and then having to get into deeper and deeper trouble to cover it up, all while trying to provide them with Christmas gifts is, in an unfortunate way, still as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. While life has changed in many ways since The Simpsons premiered, there are still too many people who don’t have enough money at this time of year – or indeed all through the year. That sense of a real-world situation comes through, despite the fact that we’re looking at a cartoon, and I think that’s what makes it so relatable.
I couldn’t possibly cover every Christmas film or television special on this list. There are far too many, and there are some real classics that I’ve probably forgotten all about. Here are a few more that could’ve made this list, and are definitely worth a look.
Santa Claws (2014) – Not to be confused with the 1996 horror film of the same name, this family adventure sees a litter of kittens save the day and deliver Santa’s presents – after he has an allergic reaction to them. The Snowman (1982) – The predecessor to the 1991 film Father Christmas listed above, this animated short sees a boy and his magical snowman go on an adventure. Home Alone (1990) – A holiday classic. When a young boy is left behind by his family, he has to cope on his own while fending off burglars who want to rob his mansion. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) – After losing his firm’s money, a desperate man contemplates taking his own life and wishes he was never born. His guardian angel shows him the effect his life has had on others. The Flight Before Christmas (2008) – A reindeer who’s afraid of flying saves the day in this cute animated film. Elf (2003) – A human raised by Santa’s elves at the North Pole travels back to the human world in this lighthearted comedy. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – Is it a Halloween film or a Christmas film? Either way, this stop-motion film directed by Tim Burton has become a classic. The Morecambe and Wise Show Christmas Specials (1968-83) – For well over a decade in the late 1960s, ’70s, and into the ’80s, these variety shows by a comedy duo were the most-watched thing on British television on Christmas Day. The Nativity Story (2006) – Future Star Wars actor Oscar Isaac features as Jesus’ father Joseph in this re-telling of the Biblical story.
So that’s it.
A few Christmas specials and films to get us all in the holiday mood now that we’re on the home stretch. Only four days left and then it’ll all be over for another year!
I hope you all have a Merry Christmas!
All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studios, networks, and/or distributors. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: There may be spoilers ahead for the story-focused titles on this list. If you don’t want to see spoilers for a game you haven’t yet played, feel free to skip that entry and move on to the next.
As the decade draws to a close, I’ve taken a look back at some of my favourite television series and films of the 2010s. Now it’s the turn of video games, and it’s been a good decade for the medium overall.
I used to work in the games industry, writing marketing blurb and website content for a large games company, so I might look at things slightly differently than the average gamer. I’ve also found that, due to a combination of my health worsening and just getting older, my ability and desire to sit down and play games isn’t the same as it used to be ten years ago. As a result, there are some titles which people hold up as being absolutely fantastic that I just haven’t played this decade – including games like Red Dead Redemption II, The Witcher 3, and God of War. That they aren’t included on this list doesn’t mean they aren’t great games, it’s simply that they aren’t titles I have any personal experience with.
With the rise of on-demand streaming for films and television, it’s safe to say that in most cases, most people can watch any film or TV series that they want to. There are even, shall we say, ways to get around pesky restrictions for those who sail the high seas. Ahoy, mateys. So in that sense, TV and film is one platform that everyone with a screen can access. Not so for games, where different titles are released on different systems – some being exclusive to just one. A person’s preference for games is therefore going to be tied to the platform they use to play and the titles that system has available. My primary gaming machine is PC, but I’ve been lucky this decade to play on a variety of others.
Let’s look back briefly at the systems we’ve seen this decade. Obviously PC has been there for the whole decade, chugging away in the background. In 2010, the main consoles that were available were the Wii, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. These consoles were into the latter half of their life by this point, having been released in 2005 and 2006. In 2012, Nintendo launched the Wii U, which didn’t sell particularly well, and in 2013 Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were released. Following the failure of the Wii U, the Switch came out in 2017, and these three consoles are the primary ones in use today. The 2010s also saw the mass adoption of smartphones, which are a legitimate gaming platform in themselves, and finally just a few weeks ago, Google jumped into the gaming market with its streaming service called Stadia. There were also a couple of handhelds, the Nintendo 3DS and the PlayStation Vita.
As I said for the previous lists I’ve made, everything here is wholly subjective. These aren’t games I’m saying are “objectively the best”, they’re simply the titles I personally found to be the most interesting, entertaining, or memorable over the last ten years. And aside from my number one pick, which is my favourite game of the decade, the rest of the list could really be in almost any order. So with that out of the way, let’s jump in.
Number 10: Minecraft (Multiplatform, 2011)
I came to Minecraft quite early in its life, when it was still in beta. I was with a girlfriend at the time who had got into it through watching YouTube videos of playthroughs and wanted me to try it out. The early versions of the game lacked a lot of features that are available currently. When I first played, there was no Creative Mode option, no villager NPCs, no End portal, and a lot of other elements. But it was nevertheless a fun game, and one that was great to play together with other people.
Minecraft took me by surprise by blowing up the way it did. I didn’t expect this scruffy little game, with its incredibly outdated pixel graphics and that seemed to be all about building mud huts and chopping trees, to become a global gaming phenomenon. Shows what I know, eh?
The core appeal of Minecraft is that in its randomly-generated world, players can basically do anything they want. People have done everything from using Creative Mode to make incredibly detailed artwork to redstone-powered in-game computer systemswhich actually work. Schools have even started using Minecraft as an educational tool, teaching kids how to interact with and use computers. And Minecraft is everywhere, on every platform and system from consoles to phones to PC and even the Raspberry Pi mini computer. And it’s picked up a worldwide fanbase that must number in the hundreds of millions.
The combination of exploration, collecting resources, building, and fighting monsters has been incredibly alluring, and while Minecraft may seem simple on the surface, there’s so much to do that it’s easy to lose many, many hours in its simple, pixelated world. I’ve had great fun taking an empty world and building castles, digging huge caverns and tunnels, travelling to different realms, and fighting off some of Minecraft’s iconic creatures. And compared to a lot of players, I’ve barely scratched the surface.
The PC version of Minecraft has also benefited from a very active modding community, with some incredible mods that completely change the game. One such mod is even credited (at least by some people) with spawning the battle royale genre that has taken the gaming world by storm in the last three or four years.
All in all, Minecraft is a rare, genre-defining title and its success has been imitated by many other games – so much so that “Minecraft clone” is a legitimate game genre in itself at this point – but never bettered. That it still has such an active playerbase over eight years after its official release is testament to its place in the history of gaming.
Number 9: The FIFA series (Multiplatform, annual releases)
In 2010, I picked up the World Cup edition of FIFA. I’d played several FIFA titles in the 1990s – FIFA ’97 on PC, World Cup ’98 and FIFA 99 on the Nintendo 64 – but I hadn’t touched the franchise since the turn of the millennium. It had changed hugely in that time – not just graphically, but the AI too.
Though it’s probably fair to say that FIFA games this decade haven’t made such groundbreaking changes as they did in the previous one, for me as someone coming back after such a long hiatus, I was absolutely struck by how much better World Cup 2010 was than the titles I remembered from years prior. While FIFA games absolutely can be enjoyed in single-player, where I had the most fun was playing against friends one-on-one.
I’m not a big online gamer, but if I have two control pads and someone to play with on the couch, FIFA is definitely one of my go-to series for a fun time – assuming, of course, that the other person is a football fan. For non-fans, there’s obviously much less enjoyment to be had.
The most recent edition of FIFA I played was FIFA 18, which has some minor improvements over games earlier in the decade, but nothing that I’d say that majorly changed the game experience. What I find the most fun isn’t playing as my favourite team with my favourite players, but picking a less-known team in a different league, building a team of players, and challenging for the league title or a cup. FIFA is a surprisingly adaptable series in that respect – there are a lot of options and ways to play. Depending on how long or short you want matches to be, and how much input you want to have in the management of your team, you can spend either hours in the backroom playing with different tactical choices and player options, or just blitz through a campaign of short matches all the way to the end of the season and the cup final. There’s something for everyone – or at least, for every football fan.
There are some absolutely legitimate criticisms of the FIFA series for the way it charges players for random in-game content in its Ultimate Team mode, and the way that recent iterations of the game – especially on platforms like Nintendo Switch – haven’t really brought any new gameplay to the table for a full-priced title, and I don’t want to ignore those. But for me personally, as someone who doesn’t play online and doesn’t buy in-game items, FIFA is a lot of fun and offers a lot of content for people who enjoy football. And the massive improvements made since I first played it in the 1990s are still impressive, even if the pace and scale of gameplay and graphical improvements has fallen away in recent years.
Number 8: Shenmue I & II (PC and PlayStation 4, 2018)
I was a huge Shenmue fan when I had a Dreamcast, so when this remaster was announced I was incredibly excited to jump back into that world. It’s a little bit of a stretch to call this a remaster, though, as while the game is upscaled to fit modern widescreen displays, and there were some minor changes to controls to better suit modern control pads, the games are essentially identical to their respective 1999 and 2001 releases – including, so I hear, some of the same bugs and glitches as were present two decades ago. Though I did encounter a few bugs in my playthrough (the same cutscene repeating, getting stuck in the environment, etc.) I can’t say for sure whether those are bugs which were carried over from the original versions or not.
Though Shenmue I & II haven’t really aged all that well from a gameplay perspective, it was absolutely a nostalgic treat to be able to replay these classic games I enjoyed years ago. And the first game in particular was a landmark in the history of gaming – for me personally as well as the industry. Prior to playing Shenmue, most of my gaming experiences had been in flat, 2D worlds. The few 3D titles I’d seen or played had been games like Super Mario 64 – which is a great game in its own right, but not what you’d call cinematic. Shenmue completely changed the way I viewed games; no longer just digital toys, they could tell stories that would be just as at home on television or in the cinema. I love that about games, and my favourite titles ever since have been ones that told great, immersive stories. The chance to recapture some of the way that felt was too tempting to pass up, so I couldn’t wait to replay Shenmue.
Shenmue I & II was a return to a game world I hadn’t visited since the early 2000s when I traded in my Dreamcast for an Xbox when that console failed, and as a piece of nostalgia, getting to enjoy these titles again was wonderful. Shenmue is a series all about telling one story, and the unique world it created – with characters and businesses operating on a day-night schedule, variable weather conditions, and the freedom to ditch the main quest and just explore the environment or play games in the arcade – was groundbreaking for its time and still something special today.
In an article earlier this month, I wrote how I was very disappointed that Shenmue III won’t be completing Ryo’s story, despite having what is almost certainly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do so. I still haven’t bought that game, and I’m not sure whether I want to until I know whether there will be a sequel – or any other conclusion to the story. But that disappointment hasn’t detracted (much) from my enjoyment of this rerelease of the first two titles.
Number 7: Mario Kart 7 (Nintendo 3DS, 2011) & Mario Kart 8 (Wii U, 2014; Switch, 2017)
Ever since I played Super Mario Kart on the SNES in the mid-1990s I’ve been a fan of Nintendo’s fun and silly racing series. Both of the main entries this decade – 2011’s Mario Kart 7 and 2014’s Mario Kart 8 – have been absolutely amazing. The less said about Nintendo’s money-grabbing mobile version the better, though. I got to play Mario Kart 8 months before release at a press event, and I was in awe of the game’s hugely improved graphics. For a while it seemed like the Wii U tanking would mean fewer people would get to play this great entry in the series, but Nintendo repackaged the game for Switch in 2017 – where I’m not ashamed to say I bought it for the second time.
A racing sim this ain’t, so leave your $500 sim cockpit at home, and pick up a controller (or a pair of Switch joy-cons) because Mario Kart is pure arcade racing goodness. When I was working in a big office, a group of colleagues and I would regularly play Mario Kart 7 via the Nintendo 3DS’ Download Play feature, and those races could get very competitive! Mario Kart 8 is also a great multiplayer game, and on one occasion I had a birthday tournament with some friends. As a split-screen game, it’s absolutely perfect. Its simple controls mean anyone can jump in and play, with races being easily accessible to a newcomer – even someone new to gaming.
My favourite character is Dry Bones – the skeleton version of Koopa Troopa – so I was pleased to see him (or her, I suppose) return for the Switch version of Mario Kart 8. It’s always nice to be able to play as your favourite – and I’d been playing as Dry Bones since Mario Kart Wii. The expanded roster of characters this time around should give players plenty of choice, as will the variety of customisation options for karts. Putting together the best kart – with a combination of body, wheels, and glider – to win races has become an important strategic element of the game!
At the end of the day, Mario Kart 7 and Mario Kart 8 are just good, solid fun. With Nintendo’s typical high quality, these really are games anyone of any age can have a fantastic time with. Whether you want to kill five minutes with a single race, or spend hours trying to unlock all the characters and vehicle options, there’s something for everyone to do in this fun, casual title.
Number 6: The Last Of Us (PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, 2013)
The Last Of Us was the PlayStation 3’s swansong – one of its final titles that really showed off what the system was capable of. In 2013 the games industry was gearing up for new consoles, but famed studio Naughty Dog had one last hurrah for the departing generation, and released what is arguably the PlayStation 3’s finest game.
Set in a post-apocalyptic environment where most of humanity has fallen victim to a fungal infection that turns people into zombies, The Last Of Us is really a character-driven story, a road trip game where main characters Joel and Ellie cross a hauntingly beautiful rendition of an overgrown, largely deserted United States. There’s a variety of enviroments, from crumbling cities to open areas of countryside, and to call the world “atmospheric” wouldn’t do it justice.
Joel is the game’s main protagonist, and while players get a turn playing as Ellie, The Last Of Us is really Joel’s story. The ending is gut-wrenching, and whether or not you agree with Joel’s decision to save Ellie’s life – and in so doing, rob humanity of the chance to cure the cordyceps disease – it’s an incredibly powerful ending. I’m not sure whether the game really needs a sequel; you can’t usually get lighting to strike twice. But regardless, a sequel is due out next year and I’ll be interested – if cautiously so – to see where it takes these incredible characters.
The best post-apocalyptic fiction, whether in the format of a game, book, film, or television series, takes relatable, down-to-earth characters and throws impossibly difficult situations at them. For me, The Last Of Us is right up there with films like I Am Legend and TV shows like The Last Ship as a standout piece of work in the post-apocalyptic genre. By focusing so much on two characters, their journey, and their growth, the game takes everything great about storytelling and makes it an interactive experience. The best games, at least in my opinion, are the ones that manage to do this. And The Last Of Us is absolutely among the best games of the decade for that very reason.
Number 5: Banished (PC, 2014)
Banished is a complicated town-building and management game. Players take control of a group of citizens who are starting a new life after being banished from their society. Aside from planning and building the town, it’s important to manage resources like food, clothing, firewood, tools, medicine, and citizens’ happiness, and getting the balance right between all of these elements is incredibly tricky to master even after hours of trial and error.
The amazing thing about Banished, considering how much there is to do, is that it was all created and programmed by one person. Every aspect of the game was designed and put together by just one guy, and that’s just incredible to me. There have occasionally been other indie titles with just one creator, but none have come close to being on par with Banished. This game would still have made this list even if it had been the work of a team of developers or a whole studio, but considering only one person worked on it, I’m speechless, truly.
The world that players’ citizens inhabit is randomly generated each time, meaning no two towns will be alike. While it’s relatively easy to get started, scavenging available above-ground resources, in order to maintain a town that will be viable for 50+ years of in-game time, it’s important to put sustainability at the heart of playing the game. Forests can be replanted, but if players clear the map from end to end it’s easy to run out of other resources like iron or stone. And striking the right balance to keep everyone in town fed, clothed, equipped, healthy, and happy is a task that is difficult to get the hang of, and one that varies with each map and each playthrough, giving Banished almost unlimited replayability for people who really get into it.
Number 4: Super Mario Odyssey (Switch, 2017)
For a few years in the 2010s, it seemed as though Nintendo was only interested in 2D Mario games, titles which imitated the character’s NES and SNES heyday but with up-to-date graphics. Those 2D platformers were okay, but Super Mario Odyssey is on a whole other level.
Playing out like a massively expanded version of classic 3D platformer Super Mario 64 – complete with a version of that game’s iconic castle – Odyssey takes Mario on an incredible journey all across the Mushroom Kingdom and beyond. There’s plenty of nostalgia here for returning fans, including throwbacks to previous titles in the franchise, but there’s also loads to do for new players, and you don’t have to be a Mario fan to have an amazing experience.
For what is I believe the first time, it’s possible to customise Mario’s outfit. This simple change alone provides tons of fun, and an additional incentive to collect all the hidden coins throughout Odyssey‘s expansive levels. I’m a big fan of character outfits and customisation, and being able to style Mario in such a wide range of outfits was great fun.
There’s a range of different environments in Odyssey, with no two levels being alike. From a cityscape to a dark forest all the way to the moon, there’s a lot to see and do. The game revolves around collecting moons – which replace the power stars from Mario 64 – and while a couple of hundred is enough to unlock all the levels and defeat Bowser, there are literally hundreds more available. 100% completion of the game is possible, but difficult – and requires a heck of a lot of time. This is a title to come back to over and over, and an undoubted classic of the genre and the generation.
Number 3: Grand Theft Auto V (Multiplatform, 2013)
For a lot of people, Grand Theft Auto V will be the game of the decade, and understandably so. Rockstar’s most recent entry into its action/crime franchise is a juggernaut – regularly appearing in top ten sales charts and on Steam as one of the most played games even six years after its initial release.
The main reason Grand Theft Auto V has been so successful is its online mode – though as a predominantly single-player gamer this isn’t a mode I’m familiar with. Instead, what I like about this game is its single-player campaign. The characters are great to interact with, and watching them team up and work together is more rewarding because players get to spend time with each of them. In previous Grand Theft Auto titles, players took control of a single protagonist. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, Grand Theft Auto V‘s approach, having multiple protagonists, has arguably led to more immersion and the feeling that missions have higher stakes. Watching two or three characters you’ve played as interacting with each other is a very different experience than watching a sole protagonist interact with NPCs. There’s a personal connection that exists between player and character – one which Grand Theft Auto V uses to great effect.
While the story is a fun, over-the-top parody of America as it was in the early 2010s, where Grand Theft Auto V really shines is in letting players loose in a huge open world. Half of the fun of any Grand Theft Auto title is in taking time off from story missions and roaming around, blasting the soundtrack from the radio of your stolen car, and just soaking up the atmosphere of the world that has been painstakingly created. And that’s just as true here as it was in Grand Theft Auto III, which was the first title in the series I played back on the original Xbox, or in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which first featured the city of Los Santos.
Los Santos is a parody of Los Angeles, and the city is created in absolutely amazing detail. Even more than six years after release, this open world’s scale is impressive and it looks great to boot. There’s a lot to do even when not taking part in a mission, far too many side activities to list here, and it’s quite easy to see how people have sunk thousands of hours into this game. Grand Theft Auto V is a title which has lasted from the end of the last console generation right through the current one, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest to see it ported to next year’s PlayStation 5 and next-gen Xbox. How will Rockstar possibly be able to follow its success? I wrote an article about that.
Number 2: Civilization VI (PC, 2016)
Civilization VI might be the game I’ve spent the most time with this decade. It’s certainly my most-played game of the last three years, that’s for sure. It’s a game that hooks you in and keeps you coming back for more.
My first experiences with PC strategy games back in the 1990s were real-time strategy games like Age of Empires and Command and Conquer. Early games in the Civilization franchise didn’t really appeal to me because they were slower and, in my opinion at the time, less exciting as a result. So when Civilization VI came out in 2016, I wasn’t particularly interested at first. But after reading some very positive reviews online I decided to give it a try – and I’m so glad I did.
Playing out like a digital board game rather than a video game, Civilization VI lets you build cities, colonise the world, and defeat your opponents through a variety of victory conditions: cultural, domination, religious, scientific, or simply by having the highest score at the end of an arbitrary time limit or turn limit. Each of these victory conditions requires a different play style to achieve, and which one seems best to pursue can change depending on the outcome of wars and diplomacy with other factions in the game.
Despite some glitches here and there, including one introduced by an update at one point, the AI in the game is very good and plays to win. On harder difficulty settings, you’re in for a real fight! There are also some great custom scenarios – shorter games with different factions and specific victory conditions. I also had great fun trying to unlock various Steam achievements – some of which required oddly specific circumstances like capturing an oil well in the final turn of a game, or building districts in a city in a specific pattern. Achieving some of the more obscure ones – especially ones that hardly anyone else had – became a fun game in itself for me.
The game takes players from the stone age through to the near future (as of the most recent expansion pack) and various technologies can be unlocked along the way, improving your cities, units, and abilities. There are plenty of civilisations to choose from, with the number almost doubling thanks to several expansion packs. Unfortunately, the price for the game plus all its current expansions can be a bit steep – but it is on sale on Steam from time to time, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for those sales to get the game at a discount.
Civilization VI converted me from a real-time strategy fan to someone who appreciates a slower turn-based game. And I’ve spent hundreds of hours in this game, customising everything I could (I like to give my cities names) and having a whale of a time. The randomly-generated maps, and the fact that there are far too many civilisations and leaders to play against in a single match, means that Civilization VI has huge replayability potential once you get stuck in. And I really, really did get stuck in for a while there.
For every title on the list above, there was at least one other I could’ve picked. It really has been a great decade for games, and with more people than ever now owning a console and playing games regularly, things can only get better as the 2020s roll around. Just before I crown my favourite game of the decade, here are a few titles which almost made this list (and one bonus subscription service – let’s look at that first!)
Xbox GamePass (Xbox One and PC, 2017) – GamePass aims to be the “Netflix of video games”, and that’s exactly what it is. A huge number of titles can be played for a single subscription fee, and I’d absolutely recommend it to anyone on a budget. An Xbox One S with a GamePass subscription (and an internet connection) is enough to get you stuck into this generation’s games without spending a huge amount of money up front.
Star Trek Online (PC, 2010; Xbox One and PlayStation 4, 2016) – It wouldn’t be one of my lists without a Star Trek title, and Star Trek Online is a lot of fun – provided you can tolerate playing with thousands of other people. I can’t, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognise it’s a good game. Fortnite (Multiplatform, 2017) – As a title that has brought millions of new people into the hobby, and changed the way companies approach charging for games, Fortnite is a landmark in this decade’s gaming landscape. Plague Inc. (iOS and Android, 2012) – I didn’t expect to find a mobile game so genuinely different and interesting, but this fun strategy title – in which you play as a virus trying to wipe out humankind – is just that. Victoria II (PC, 2010) – A massively in-depth grand strategy game that must take years to master, set during the 19th Century. Notable for allowing players to play as literally any country in the world – and expand to colonise and conquer it. Planet Coaster (PC, 2016) – A spiritual successor to the classic Rollercoaster Tycoon series, this surprisingly detailed theme park builder is difficult, but a ton of fun. Meow Motors (Multiplatform, 2018) – It’s basically Mario Kart with cats. What’s not to love about that? Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One, 2019) – I can’t rank this game because I haven’t been able to play it yet, but everything I’ve read sounds amazing and I can’t wait to jump back in to a galaxy far, far away. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Multiplatform, 2011) – I’d been an Elder Scrolls fan since Morrowind, and Skyrim did not disappoint – a massive open world, tons of NPCs, several factions, and hundreds of missions and quests to get stuck into. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360, 2011) – Another franchise I’d long been a fan of, Human Revolution is a well-built prequel with fun gunplay and interesting ways to genetically and technologically modify your human character. Halo: Reach (Xbox 360, 2010; Xbox One and PC, 2019) – It’s funny to be ending the decade replaying a game from the very start, but Halo: Reach is a fantastic story-driven FPS and was original developer Bungie’s final entry in the Halo series.
Number 1: Mass Effect 2 (PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, 2010)
What can I say about Mass Effect 2 other than “wow”? This game’s incredible story of a no-hope mission to stop nefarious aliens from abducting human colonies is without equal in gaming, and would be at home in any big budget television series or film franchise.
I came late to the Mass Effect party, only playing the first game in the series several years after its 2007 release. I must confess that I wasn’t impressed at first. Mass Effect 1 struck me as a poor rip-off of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic; a generic clone of Star Wars from a studio that didn’t have the license any more. But after running out of things to play, I gave the first Mass Effect 1 a second chance, and second time around it hooked me into its world. By then, Mass Effect 2 was due for release and I picked up a copy on launch day. To say I was blown away would be an understatement – the game is such a massive improvement on its predecessor.
Gameplay is fantastic, a cover-based third-person shooter with a few different weapons to choose from and a variety of powers, including technological and the fantasy-based biotics (which I felt on my initial look at Mass Effect 1 was a poor clone of the Force from Star Wars). There are numerous planets to explore, and players get their own ship to command. Planets and missions don’t have to be done in the same order every time, giving some variety to additional playthroughs.
But what really shines in Mass Effect 2 are the characters and the story. Essentially, Mass Effect 2 is a team-up story: players must recruit the best team possible for an incredibly dangerous mission into uncharted space. Each team member needs to be recruited, then have their loyalty to you and the cause cemented by completing an additional optional mission, usually to resolve part of their backstory. Once these missions are complete, and the Normandy (the player’s ship) has been suitably upgraded, it’s time to take the fight to the evil Collectors (revealed to be pawns of the series’ main antagonists the Reapers).
The final mission of the game – dubbed the “suicide mission” – is one of the most intense sequences I’ve played in any game. The characters we’ve spent so long with can die, permanently, if the mission doesn’t go exactly right. First-time players will probably need a walkthrough to complete this final mission successfully. It’s an incredibly powerful story, with consequences for the final part of the trilogy (which came out two years later).
Mass Effect 2 also included some great expansion packs, adding additional story content which paved the way for Mass Effect 3 nicely. These expansions were well worth the money, and added hours of extra gameplay to what was already not a short game.
Being able to play the game as a nice guy or evil badass, as well as deciding who to recruit, whether to bother with their loyalty missions, and whether to try to keep everyone alive or make sacrifices in the endgame all combine to make Mass Effect 2 a game well worth revisiting. I must’ve played all the way through half a dozen times. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a long game!
The Mass Effect series was also unique, at least at the time, for letting players choose to play as a male or female Commander Shepard. Both options were fully-voiced, meaning there’s even more reason to come back to the game after beating it the first time.
Mass Effect worked so well as a trilogy, despite its controversial and somewhat lazy ending, but the standout part has to be Mass Effect 2. It built on the universe its predecessor created, streamlining the gameplay to really shine a spotlight on its amazing story. Mass Effect 3 would round out the trilogy, and unfortunately since then, the franchise hasn’t been able to recapture the magic of its second instalment. This is definitely a series worthy of a next-gen remaster, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see that some time in the 2020s.
When it came to choosing one title to top this list, Mass Effect 2 was the first one that came to mind. And when I stacked it up against other games, even ones I’d played a great deal more of, Mass Effect 2‘s amazing story won out, and I’m happy to crown it my game of the decade.
So that’s it.
Those are the games I personally had the most fun with over the last ten years. If your favourites didn’t make the list, please keep in mind that there are a lot of recent games that, despite wanting to, I just haven’t got around to playing yet. And as I said at the start, this whole thing is entirely subjective. It’s been a wonderful decade for games, one which has seen the medium grow beyond all recognition. Thanks to the almost universal adoption of smartphones, and the ease of smartphone gaming, millions of people who wouldn’t have ever called themselves “gamers” are getting into the hobby for the first time. And blockbuster titles like Minecraft and Fortnite have done wonders for the industry.
There have been some drawbacks and issues – loot boxes and random in-game monetisation is, despite what companies claim, akin to gambling, and I fear that some young people are going to have issues as a result of that in future. We need to keep a weather eye on some of these companies, and be unafraid to call them out when they misbehave.
But overall, the 2010s will be remembered as a decade which, though it didn’t see such a radical improvement in graphics or available computing power as the 1990s or 2000s, took gaming as a medium forward, pushing the boundaries and finally breaking into the mainstream as a legitimate entertainment form. Gaming is no longer looked down on by the majority as a nerdy hobby for sweaty teenagers. More and more people have become gamers themselves, and the decade has rewarded them with some absolutely incredible titles, both in terms of single-player story experiences and online multiplayer titles.
All of the games listed above are the copyright of their respective developers and publishers. All screenshots and promotional artwork were taken from IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for all of the shows mentioned on this list. If you haven’t seen one, or haven’t seen up to the most recent season, feel free to skip ahead to the next entry.
In this second part of my series looking back at some of the entertainment highlights of the 2010s, I’ll be taking a look at television series. A couple of these may have premiered in the 2000s, but the criteria here was that they had to have new episodes (not re-runs) broadcast sometime between January 2010 and December 2019. So now you know not to complain that “technically this series aired in 2009”.
As is the case in cinema, television series this decade have benefited greatly from a huge increase in the quality and availability of CGI and other special effects. The result is that for a series with a sufficiently high budget, visuals and effects bordering on (and in some cases surpassing) the big screen have been possible. Additional technological changes like the availability of drones have meant that even low-budget shows have been able to get dramatic, sweeping aerial shots, and the move from standard definition (480p) to high definition (720p or 1080p) as well as the move from DVD to Blu-Ray has meant the visual quality of television series this decade is higher than ever. And that’s great, because television screens have been getting larger and larger. A few shows are even available in 4K resolution (2160p), pushing visuals even further.
The decade has also seen a major shift away from broadcast television channels to online on-demand streaming. Netflix and Amazon Prime end the decade in pole position in this new market. It’s funny to think that at the beginning of the decade I was still buying DVDs and watching them on a 4:3 CRT television. Going back to that setup today, after experiencing the convenience of Netflix and 4K visuals, would be one heck of a downgrade.
As more and more companies have tried to capture for themselves a piece of the streaming market, television budgets have skyrocketed. The result has been an exceptional decade for television storytelling. Some series have focused on telling a single story over multiple episodes and seasons, and this serialised format has become increasingly popular, largely replacing episodic television (or the “monster-of-the-week” format) across many genres. Personally, while I like some serialised shows and the format can suit some stories, I miss being able to jump into any random episode of a show I enjoy without having to remember everything that happened that season – or several seasons prior. But that’s really just a matter of personal taste.
Speaking of personal taste, this entire list is completely subjective. I’m in no way saying these shows are “objectively the best”; they’re simply the ones I personally enjoyed most over the last ten years. My number one pick is my favourite show of the decade, but the others could really be in almost any order – they’re all so good. So let’s dive in!
Number 10: Elementary (2012-19)
While the BBC won almost universal acclaim for their series Sherlock, a second modern-day take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective premiered in the USA. Elementary stars Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as Holmes and Watson respectively, the latter being “gender-swapped” to be female. I’m not usually a fan of changing the fundamentals of a character in this way, but this take on Sherlock Holmes was so altogether different from its source material that here, it worked surprisingly well.
One of the main reasons why I found Elementary to be preferable to Sherlock – and I’m afraid the comparison is an inescapable one – is simply that there was much more to watch. Sherlock, at time of writing, has had a grand total of 13 episodes over four seasons, and while most of them were good, there wasn’t actually a lot to get stuck in to as a viewer. Elementary, in contrast, ran for seven seasons and has a grand total of 154 episodes. While quantity over quality is not a good argument, if the quality is good then I’ll always be happier with a series that delivers more to watch. And as good as Sherlock was, Elementary just offered so much more.
Miller and Liu lead the cast, but there are great performances from guests such as Rhys Ifans and Natalie Dormer, the latter playing Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty in earlier seasons. These recurring characters add an extra element to the show and allow for character development and arcs over multiple seasons, in addition to the episodic nature of much of the show. Indeed Elementary is one of the few series this decade to primarily stick to an episodic format, allowing Holmes and Watson to solve a huge variety of cases over the course of all seven seasons. As with some shows that run for a long time, toward the end the quality dipped a little as storylines became overly complicated, but overall Elementary is a really enjoyable crime drama/detective show that brings Sherlock Holmes firmly into the modern day.
Number 9: The Terror (2018-19)
I’m always more than a little sceptical when it comes to an entertainment product using real-world people and historical figures without their permission or knowledge. And The Terror, at least in its first season, uses the crew of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition as its cast of characters. I’m also not a fan of horror in general, but the story of the Franklin Expedition was too tempting to pass up, so I gave The Terror a chance. And I’m so glad that I did.
Sir John Franklin – portrayed by Ciarán Hinds as a somewhat pompous and ill-prepared leader – takes command of two ships on an expedition to find the northwest passage at the very end of the Age of Exploration. Almost all of the world had been mapped by the 1840s, save for some of the most northerly arctic regions, and the Franklin Expedition was aiming to find a way to cross between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This serves as the backdrop for the series, which is ultimately about the increasingly desperate attempts of the crew to survive, as well as fend off a soul-devouring monster.
Luckily the monster didn’t get too much screen time, and in the vein of classics of the monster horror genre like Jaws was the better for being largely unseen. Both Tobias Menzies and Jared Harris give incredible performances as naval commanders, and the story plays out across a single season, leaving practically the entire cast dead by the end.
The second season picks up a completely different story, set this time in a Japanese internment camp in the USA during WWII, and The Terror thus becomes an anthology series. The second season wasn’t as strong as the first, but did feature Star Trek’s George Takei among its cast – noteworthy because he was, in his youth, interred in such a camp.
An interesting premise gave The Terror the foundation upon which a truly interesting series was built, and as a horror show that didn’t focus too much on jump-scares or gore, it was something different in the 2010s. Finally, as a character study of individuals dealing with incredibly difficult, almost unimaginable circumstances, The Terror has certainly earned its spot on this list.
Number 8: The Last Ship (2014-18)
Post-apocalyptic settings have been common in entertainment this past decade, but few series nailed it the way The Last Ship did. Rather than an alien invasion, like in Falling Skies, or something supernatural, like in The Walking Dead or The Strain, the threat here is something down-to-earth and real: a viral pandemic. To me, that sense of realism heightened the drama – the premise of The Last Ship feels like something that could actually happen some day, and I found that to be absolutely gripping.
At the heart of it, though, The Last Ship is about characters, as the best shows often are. The crew of the U.S.S. Nathan James go through a heck of a lot, first to find a sample, then to create and distribute a cure, before finally facing the impossible task of rebuilding civilisation. There are some great ship-to-ship battles here, for fans of such things, and despite a lot of modern series and films having a military focus, modern-day naval combat isn’t something there’s been a lot of on television. So in that sense, those sequences are as interesting to watch as they are nervewracking and dramatic.
The show isn’t afraid to take risks – splitting up its cast at numerous points, often for multiple episodes at a time, as well as killing off key crew member and scientist Dr Rachel Scott at the end of its second season. The latter is an especially bold move given the focus The Last Ship had on the work undertaken to cure the virus and synthesise the cure in a form which was easy to distribute.
As in many post-apocalyptic settings, a significant part of the drama comes from human beings facing unprecedented situations for which they were not prepared. Many of the show’s antagonists – such as a government official illegally burning the bodies of the dead to fuel a power plant – are created by circumstance, and while in the context of the show we root for the crew of the Nathan James to bring them down, in more thought-provoking moments we’re left wondering just what we’d have done in such a situation.
Number 7: The Vietnam War (2017)
As I mentioned in my previous list, which was about the best films of the decade, I’m a big fan of documentaries. And Ken Burns has produced some absolutely outstanding documentaries about the United States, with his latest work tackling the Vietnam War.
I studied the war quite a bit when I was at university, so the overall story is well-known to me, as I’m sure it would be to a lot of people. But that didn’t mean that the way it was presented here, complete with interviews given by soldiers on both sides, and many others who were involved with or affected by the war, was in any way less interesting. The Vietnam War is a masterpiece, telling the story from the American side, but not with malice or bias toward the Vietnamese – who did ultimately win, of course.
The soundtrack is also outstanding, featuring many classic songs of the era, including a number of protest songs. In many ways, the societal divisions we’re living through today have a parallel in the Vietnam era – pro-war and anti-war activists would frequently clash, and there was no middle ground and no civility between the two sides. Sound familiar?
What was great about The Vietnam War is that Ken Burns didn’t treat the retreat from Saigon as the end of the affair. Instead the documentary continues, exploring in detail the consequences of a communist victory for the south – and the country overall. In many ways, Vietnam was a turning point for the Americans, who’d never been on the losing side of a war since 1812, and a reality check on their foreign policy. The legacy of that conflict persists today, both for the Americans and Vietnamese, and The Vietnam War explores the issues as carefully as possible while trying to remain balanced.
Number 6: Hannibal (2013-15)
Sir Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the famous cannibal was always going to be a difficult act to follow, as his performance in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs is iconic. But to my surprise, Hannibal actually managed to bring something new to the table – pun absolutely intended – and in a positive way, showing off Thomas Harris’ serial killer in all his devious glory.
The premise is interesting – a police procedural where the killer is already known to the audience and is hiding out among the cast. Known to us but unknown to them. It’s something which is incredibly hard to get right, because it risks the story becoming either boring or over-the-top. Luckily, at least in its first two seasons, Hannibal avoids that trap and instead tells a fascinating, if somewhat complicated, story.
The two leads, Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, give outstanding performances as Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter respectively, and the chemistry between the two of them carries the show forward. Unfortunately, the show’s ratings were never great, partly due to its heavy, overly artistic style (a scene which is literally just a slow-motion teacup shattering and then coming back together is always going to have very limited appeal) and it had to be saved from cancellation after both its first and second seasons. The third season was much weaker, at least in my opinion, and I’d have preferred if the second season’s finale – where Hannibal walks away from a wounded Will Graham into the night – had been the series’ end. The first two seasons, however, were fantastic, and there really isn’t another series quite like Hannibal.
The level of gore was very high, but much of it was treated in a very artistic way. Hannibal himself, at least this version of the character, tends to display his victims in a variety of poses, often imitating art or making a point. In one famous sequence, the brain and heart of a judge are cut out, and his corpse is displayed with the two organs balanced on a scale in a brutal display. For some viewers, such content would be shocking and enough to stop watching. In that sense, Hannibal is much more of a niche product than its big screen cousins.
Number 5: Game of Thrones (2011-19)
It’s not in the slightest unfair to say that television in the 2010s was dominated by Game of Thrones. It’s a seminal work, rightly hailed as a classic, and one which will be a joy to return to even in twenty or thirty years’ time. At some point in the future I’d like to do a full retrospective of Game of Thrones, including its controversial and disappointing final season, but there’s far too much to go into on this list.
I hadn’t read George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic before I watched the show – but that’s okay, because he still hasn’t finished writing it. It took me a while to get into Game of Thrones, because despite loving the fantasy setting, the sheer volume of characters introduced in the first few episodes is hard to keep track of at first, especially for a total newcomer.
Game of Thrones changed the way television was produced in three key ways – firstly, it wasn’t afraid to kill off regular cast members. Soaps had been doing this for years, it has to be said, but most prime time shows simply didn’t have a disposable cast until Game of Thrones came along. Secondly, it made multi-season serialised storytelling mainstream for the sci fi/fantasy genre, which had previously been much more episodic in nature. And finally, it demonstrated to television companies that it can be worth investing cinema-level money into television.
Speaking as a fan of science fiction and fantasy, Game of Thrones took what had been a fairly niche, geeky genre and pulled it firmly into the mainstream. People who, a few years ago, wouldn’t have been caught dead watching something like this were drawn into the realm of fantasy – many for the first time – and from the point of view of ensuring more fantasy and sci fi will be produced, and with bigger budgets, that’s a really great thing.
There are too many great individual performances to cover here, but as a whole the cast did a fantastic job bringing these characters to life. And in terms of visual effects, Game of Thrones really does throw cinema-quality visuals at viewers. There are a small number of awkward CGI moments, especially in earlier seasons, but these don’t really notice when taking the series as a whole. As a landmark in the history of television, and a truly outstanding fantasy epic that rivals greats like The Wheel of Time and even Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones is absolutely unmissable. And with prequels and spin-offs set to premiere in the coming years, we haven’t seen the last of the land of Westeros.
Number 4: Chernobyl (2019)
After Game of Thrones went off the air, I was legitimately wondering how HBO could possibly follow its success. It didn’t take long to get the answer – Chernobyl, produced in conjunction with Sky here in the UK, is probably the best miniseries I’ve ever seen.
The aesthetic of Chernobyl is perfect. I’ve talked before about how nostalgia for the 1980s has been big this decade, but Chernobyl nailed the mid-80s look and feel better than any other show or film. Even the smallest details were perfectly replicated, and while some of the green screen special effects stray a little into the “uncanny valley”, overall the way Chernobyl looks and the way it captures the feel of the 1980s is outstanding.
Telling the story of the 1986 nuclear disaster, Chernobyl might seem like a weird choice for a big-budget production, but as with other entries on this list, what makes it such gripping television is its characters. Jared Harris features in a leading role for the second time on this list, and for good reason. His work in Chernobyl – as whistleblowing scientist Valery Legasov – is one of the best individual acting performances of the decade. A conflicted man, trying to do the right thing while being hampered by the corrupt and ineffective Soviet state, Harris puts his heart and soul into the real-life Legasov, and though there are only five episodes, by the end of the series his death really hits hard. And feels like it matters.
Though the story takes some liberties with the facts of the Chernobyl disaster – supporting character Ulana Khomyuk is a “composite” representing dozens of scientists, the helicopter crash is moved to much earlier after the initial explosion, and the risk of another explosion causing a much more widespread disaster seems to have been overstated – the majority of it is firmly grounded in fact, and Chernobyl is one of the rare drama shows that the audience can learn a lot from. Not just the history of what happened, but some basics of how nuclear power is made. “Now I know how a nuclear reactor works,” says Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård – father of It actor Bill Skarsgård) and I think the audience feels the same way.
The show explores all aspects of the disaster, from the faults in the design of the nuclear reactor, all the way through to the culling of animals in the radiation zone and the disposal of the horribly radioactive corpses of those who died in the immediate aftermath. Chernobyl is both grim and gripping, detailing the story of how individuals rose to the occasion to deal with one of the most challenging moments in recent history.
Number 3: The Expanse (2016-Present)
Based on a series of novels, The Expanse is one of the most unique and interesting science fiction settings I’ve seen in a very long time. It takes many sci fi tropes – like faster-than-light travel, a united human species, and a galactic community of aliens – and ignores them, charting a path for itself that is completely different than anything else on television.
The Expanse is set in a near-future solar system where humans have colonised Mars and parts of the asteroid belt, but Mars has broken away to become a fully independent power, and “The Belt”, as it’s known, is far enough removed from Earth as to be practically autonomous. There’s a cold war going on between Earth and Mars, and it’s with this backdrop that the drama of the series unfolds.
For a SyFy channel original, I was impressed with the production values, visuals, and acting. Across the board, The Expanse delivered an exciting and cinematic story. When SyFy cancelled the series in 2018, fans started a campaign to have someone else pick it up, and Amazon stepped in. A fourth season will premiere in only a few days time. A modern-day version of the Star Trek letter-writing campaign of 1968, this success in bringing the show back shouldn’t be understated. It would have been a great shame to leave the story incomplete – especially as it had reached such an interesting point – and the fact that Amazon was willing to step in and pay for a fourth and fifth season is testament to the power of online fan communities.
There are some great performances in The Expanse too, notably from Thomas Jane, Dominique Tipper, and Shohreh Aghdashloo. The series starts with several completely separate story threads – a police detective in The Belt looking for a missing girl, the crew of a freighter transporting ice receiving a distress call, and a UN representative questioning a terrorist. Subsequent episodes bring in additional characters, like a marine from Mars and the crew of a space station run by The Belt. The way these stories play out and slowly work their way together is narratively brilliant, and the way the books have been adapted for television has been hugely successful. Casting choices were on point, and the aesthetic is great. It can be difficult to visually convey something as radically different as an extraterrestrial, but The Expanse manages to do so in an interesting way. In many shows and films, aliens end up looking just like people with a funny prosthetic, or puppets, or variants of animals or people from Earth. The weirdly ethereal way that The Expanse treats its alien element is unique and fascinating to see. There’s a heavy reliance on CGI at times, but generally it’s well done.
Rather than treating alien life as commonplace, as other sci fi series tend to do, The Expanse shows it off as something radically different and unique, and highlights the incredible danger even a molecule could do to us if we’re not prepared for it. Now that the show has been saved and its future on Amazon looks secure, it’s going to be fascinating to see what’s in store for the crew we’ve come to know.
Number 2: Phineas and Ferb (2007-2015)
I firmly believe that Phineas and Ferb is one of the best cartoon series ever made. A Disney Channel original, the show ran for four seasons across seven years, and even spawned a feature film. The characters have since cropped up in episodes of Milo Murphy’s Law – created by the same team behind Phineas and Ferb – so while it went off the air in 2015, the characters are still kicking around over at Disney.
What Phineas and Ferb does well is that it throws in little jokes, references, and easter eggs which adults can enjoy, while still being 100% kid-friendly. The best kids shows and films do this, and the little inside jokes between us and the creators that kids wouldn’t necessarily get is part of what gives the show its near-universal appeal.
Unlike many cartoons, which tend to follow a single story thread, Phineas and Ferb uses its ten-minute runtime to tell three distinct stories. The formula of each story doesn’t really change all that much from one episode to the next: Phineas and his step-brother Ferb build something or invent something, often with their friends; their older sister Candace tries (and fails) to get them in trouble with their mother for their dangerous activity; and all the while family pet Perry the Platypus is actually a secret agent who disappears to battle an evil scientist. Simple, right?
The two wholly separate elements – the boys’ invention and Perry’s battle with the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz – don’t interact much with each other, essentially making the series two shows rolled into one. The voice acting is great, and the plot, while silly and totally aimed at kids, is a perfectly fun distraction. Practically every episode also features a song, and many of the songs are catchy and downright hilarious. There are also some touching moments, notably in the Christmas special and in the series’ finale. Phineas and Ferb also attracted some great guest stars over the course of its run, including boxer Evander Holyfield, the cast of Top Gear, actor Ray Liotta, actor and producer Seth MacFarlane, and singer Kelly Clarkson.
On a personal note, Phineas and Ferb has been a show I drift back to when my mental health is poor. The happy tone, the musical elements, and the bright colours can absolutely take the edge off when things seem dark. It’s really for that reason that I’m putting it here on the list.
Before I end the list I wanted to briefly highlight another ten shows, which could’ve easily been the top ten themselves. As I said at the beginning, it’s been a great decade for television, and there’s certainly way more than ten or twenty series worth watching. I have a pretty long list of shows I’ve been meaning to watch but haven’t gotten around to yet – including highly-recommended ones like Breaking Bad, Stranger Things, and The Orville. I know, I haven’t seen The Orville yet. Sue me.
The Simpsons (1989-Present) – It may surprise some of you to know thatthis classic cartoon is still running, but it is. After years of declining quality, recent seasons have improved greatly and the series is well worth a second look. Page Eight (2011, 2014) – AKA The Worricker Trilogy, this political thriller was gripping from start to finish, and features a wonderful performance from Bill Nighy. Terra Nova (2011) – A fun dinosaur/time travel series that was unfortunately cancelled after one season, just as the story was looking to get even more interesting. Turn – Washington’s Spies (2014-17) – Telling the history of a spy ring that aided the Americans during the War of Independence, this show was entertaining and exciting, with some fun moments for a history buff like me. Rick & Morty (2013-Present) – A hilarious animated show that satirises the science fiction genre, and plays fast and loose with its timeline and canon to great effect. Short Treks (2018-Present) – Designed as a way to keep Star Trek on the air in between seasons of Discovery, these short-format episodes have told some amazing and occasionally very funny stories of their own. The Strain (2014-17) – A vampire apocalypse comes to New York City in this show created by Guillermo del Toro. David Bradley gives an incredible performance as a seasoned vampire hunter. The 100 (2014-20) – Set 99 years after a nuclear war, the show follows survivors who return to Earth after spending their whole lives in space. While it can be a bit “teenager-y”, it’s a solid work of post-apocalyptic sci fi. 11.22.63 (2016) – Based on the Steven King novel of the same name, this time travel thriller follows an attempt to prevent the assassination of JFK, and comes with a great twist. Black Sails (2014-17) – Imagined as a prequel to classic novel Treasure Island, this series takes a more serious look at the Golden Age of Piracy than the recent Pirates of the Caribbean film series.
Number 1: Star Trek: Discovery (2017-Present)
It couldn’t possibly be anything else at the top of this list, right? After a twelve-year period in which the Star Trek franchise received three decent, but imperfect, action-heavy films, I was longing for it to return to the small screen where it belongs. Star Trek: Discovery is the reason I signed up for Netflix (we don’t have CBS All Access here in the UK) and it’s been well worth it.
As with most Star Trek shows, the start was rocky, but it picked up over a solid first season, with a great performance from Jason Isaacs as Capt. Gabriel Lorca. The second season improved greatly, and Anson Mount’s portrayal of legendary Star Trek character Capt. Christopher Pike has justifiably spawned a campaign for him to get his own show – seemingly catching the creators off-guard.
Discovery has taken a serialised approach to Star Trek, following the trend of many shows this decade, and that has allowed it to tell two season-long stories. The visuals have been updated massively; even the original Enterprise got a redesign. Some fans have felt the aesthetic was too similar to that used in the Kelvin timeline films, but taken as a standalone show, I think there’s nothing wrong with that. And the special effects and CGI have been fantastic.
Though we haven’t spent as much time as I’d have liked with all of the characters, there have been some wonderful character moments and relationships. A show like Discovery needs that, and the character development that has taken place over the first couple of seasons has been a joy to watch for the most part. Characters like Saru and Stamets have come into their own over the course of the series so far, gaining in confidence and going above and beyond for their crew.
Unfortunately, as with Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, this return to the Star Trek franchise hasn’t sat well with some fans, and in that sense that show has been divisive in the wider Trek fanbase. That’s a shame, but it’s a natural consequence of studios playing on nostalgia. There are some people who just don’t want anything new – if they want more Star Trek at all, they want to see carbon copies of what’s come before, not a show that tries to take the franchise to new places. Personally I’m just glad to see Star Trek back on our screens, and I hope it stays around for a long while yet.
For me to rank Star Trek: Discovery so highly considering that two of its key narrative elements in its first two seasons – the Mirror Universe and time travel – are generally not my favourite Star Trek stories is testament to just how good this series has been, and how happy I am to have Star Trek back after years in the wilderness.
Star Trek legend (and future Star Trek: Picard guest star) Jonathan Frakes stepped up to direct several episodes of Discovery across its first two seasons, further cementing its connection to the franchise. His episodes were actually among my favourites, and I look forward to seeing more from him in both Picard and the third season of Discovery when they premiere next year.
Star Trek: Discovery aimed to breathe new life into a franchise that had started to run out of ideas, and it has succeeded beyond all expectations. Its success has paved the way for Star Trek: Picard, as well as Lower Decks, Section 31, and other future Star Trek projects, and while it may not be everyone’s all-time favourite, in that sense it’s been great news for the franchise. I’m more than happy to crown it my favourite show of the decade.
So that’s it.
Those are my picks for the decade’s best television shows. As I indicated, there have been a number of series that I just haven’t found the time to sit down and watch yet, despite meaning to. But that happens, life gets in the way sometimes! There will be plenty of time to get caught up and binge-watch them in future. If your favourite series didn’t make the list, please just remember that this is all subjective. These are just the shows I enjoyed, it doesn’t mean what you like isn’t just as good. In case you missed it, you can check out my picks for the decade’s top films here. And stick around, because coming up next will be the final part of this series where I’ll look back at the decade’s top ten video games. See you next time!
All television series discussed in the list above are the copyright of their respective studios and distributors. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.