The Last Of Us (TV Series): first impressions

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for The Last Of Us, both the TV series and the video game.

The Last Of Us is finally here! One of the television shows that I’ve been most keen to see over the past couple of years made its debut last week, and with two episodes under its belt, I think it’s a good time to share my first impressions of the show.

First of all, the narrative of The Last Of Us is just perfect for an adaptation like this. Video games have been notoriously difficult to successfully bring to the screen – but in my view, that’s because most previous attempts have been feature films, not television shows. A modern, serialised TV show is a far better option for almost all video game stories for one simple reason: length.

Concept art for The Last Of Us.

The Last Of Us was released on the PlayStation 3 back in 2013, and its main storyline took players anywhere from 16-20 hours, on average, to complete. There’s no way to condense a story like that into a film; even the longest works of cinema clock in around the three-hour mark. By choosing the small screen instead, Sony and developers Naughty Dog have played a masterstroke.

So before the show had even got started, it felt like there was a strong chance for success. If I’d have heard that The Last Of Us was going to be adapted as a film, I’d have been far less interested – because its complex, dark, and deeply emotional story needs more time to play out. And based on the first two episodes, it seems as though we’re in for a solid adaptation that doesn’t rush past or skip over key story points.

Pre-release still frame of Tess and Joel with a victim of the cordyceps infection.

I was worried that I’d find Pedro Pascal miscast as Joel, if I’m being honest. Although Pascal was solid in Game of Thrones, and I’ve enjoyed his performances in other titles, like last year’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent – which you should really check out, by the way, as it’s a solid action-comedy – I wasn’t convinced that he was the right fit for this part. Pascal underwhelms me in The Mandalorian, his other big made-for-streaming series, but that’s more to do with the writing rather than the performance; The Mandalorian doesn’t give Pascal a chance to show his emotional range (nor any range at all, come to that) which is where he shines in The Last Of Us.

So I’m glad to have been proven wrong about that! The central pairing of Joel and Ellie is both the driving force of the plot of The Last Of Us and also its emotional core, and I think we’ve seen the beginnings of that in the show’s first couple of episodes. Again, this is something that builds up slowly, and the initial part of the story – the part that we’ve seen so far – put Ellie with other characters at first. But there’s a hint of good things to come in the pairing of Pedro Pascal and fellow Game of Thrones alum Bella Ramsey.

Pedro Pascal at the premiere of The Last Of Us.
Image Credit: IMDB

It’s not a stretch to say that The Last Of Us is one of the best video games I’ve ever played. Mechanically the game is solid, and its stealth-action gameplay is decent – but that was hardly innovative in 2013. What made the game special was its narrative; the game’s story was one I’d long felt was worthy of an adaptation like this. Bringing it to a new audience, as well as providing fans of the game with an adaptation worthy of such a remarkable story, was the challenge that befell HBO – and so far, it seems that they’ve risen to meet it.

Bringing the post-apocalyptic world of The Last Of Us to screen successfully required a huge financial investment – not only to secure big-name stars like Pedro Pascal, but to create intricate sets that reflect twenty years’ worth of decay, and to craft animation work that provides a sense of scale. HBO backed up the show’s creators with a decent budget, and as a result The Last Of Us recreates the game’s hauntingly beautiful world – with a few changes along the way!

The post-apocalyptic world of The Last Of Us is stunning.

I don’t know whether there will be a reason for the decision to change the time period in which the story is set other than perhaps an attempt to play on some kind of hidden early 2000s nostalgia… but maybe there will be more to it than that, we’ll have to see. In the original game, the infection broke out circa 2013 (the year the game was released) with the main story taking place in 2033-34. Perhaps the creators of the show hoped to use a kind of “look at what life could be like right now in an alternate timeline” thing, but if that’s all there is to it I don’t think it adds anything.

In a way, the show might be more relatable, not less, if it were set in the 2030s or 2040s, amidst the decaying remnants of today’s culture, rather than reflecting the way things were twenty years ago. There were what I interpreted as subtle digs at the George W Bush administration and the general post-9/11 culture of the United States in some of The Last Of Us’ scenes and dialogue, but this is something that, to be honest, has been explored in far more depth – and far better – in numerous other works, and again I don’t think it added anything of substance. However, I’m content to wait and see if the time period and other setting changes are going to be paid off later.

In the show, the outbreak occurred in 2003.

One thing that the show absolutely nails is its post-apocalyptic look. The faces of the characters are grimy and dirty from years of living in difficult conditions, the sets all show attention to detail with moss and mould, and every last element has been carefully crafted to simulate a world that is, for the most part, abandoned. CGI and animation work combine with practical effects and some very gruesome makeup to really sell the effect.

Two episodes in and I’ve already noticed multiple locations that look incredibly similar to the video game upon which the show was based. The flooded hotel in particular felt eerily familiar, and doubtless it would to anyone who played through The Last Of Us. There must be a temptation with an adaptation like this to shake things up and put the characters into different-looking spaces, but so far I’ve been struck by just how similar the locations have all felt.

The flooded hotel felt eerily familiar.

The series has made some changes, though, and one of the biggest ones that’s become apparent so far is the relationship between Tommy and Joel. In the video game, Joel was estranged from Tommy by the time of the main story, with Tommy having left to join the Fireflies – an anti-government group whose objective is to both end the military government and find a cure for the cordyceps infection. In the show, however, a big part of Joel’s motivation is to reunite with Tommy, who seems to be a resident of the Boston quarantine zone along with Joel and Tess. It remains to be seen how this change will impact the story, and whether there’s a deeper reason for it.

Another notable change came toward the end of the second episode, with the events that unfolded at the State Capitol also being quite different when compared to the video game – though this one was less impactful as it took the main characters to more or less the same place.

Tess and Joel at the Capitol.

I’m not any kind of “purist” opposed to changes like this, and if they serve the story well and create an engaging narrative, it should be fine. But I do think it’s noteworthy in any kind of adaptation – be that of a book, film, or video game – when narrative beats and characterisations are altered. The Last Of Us worked so well because it’s such a strong character-driven story… and I guess all I can say is that I hope that making changes to that story and its characters won’t have any ill effects or unintended consequences!

There are advantages to changing things up, though. While fans of the game should be confident that they’re familiar with the broad strokes of the plot, smaller changes and additions keep The Last Of Us fresh even for folks who may have played through its story multiple times. That’s a net positive, in my view, and never being quite sure what will happen next is almost always a good thing for a television show like this as it seeks to keep the tension and excitement levels high!

A new creation for the series.

The addition of a sequence set at the very beginning of the outbreak, following a scientist and military officers in Indonesia, was interesting, and the show seems to be making a bit more of an attempt than the game did to explain the origin of its cordyceps infection. Even if that sequence is all we’re going to see, I still think it was a good idea to include it. Changing the disease’s origin from “South America” to Indonesia is certainly an interesting choice, though, and again I wonder if this is something that will be paid off down the line.

The Last Of Us has a beautiful and understated piece of music as its main theme. The Americana-inspired tune is pitch-perfect for the series, and the short, modern title sequence is in line with a lot of other shows in the serialised space; shows from Star Trek: Picard to Game of Thrones have all used CGI sequences like this. I don’t think that The Last Of Us’ theme will become quite so recognisable and iconic as some others, but it’s a great piece in its own right.

Cover art for the original video game.

So let’s wrap things up! The Last Of Us is off to a great start. There are a couple of open questions; elements unique to the series or that have been changed from the source material, and I’m curious to see how that will play out as the story progresses. But overall, the show feels like a great adaptation. It’s easily one of the best video game adaptations that have been created so far, and certainly gives the Halo series on Paramount+ a run for its money!

For someone who isn’t a big horror fan, there were jumpscares and tense moments in The Last Of Us that were definitely pushing me out of my comfort zone as a viewer, but they were relatively few and far between in a complex, nuanced story that has plenty of other things to focus on. At no point did I feel I needed to switch off or skip ahead to get past a difficult or frightening sequence, and I think that’s to the show’s credit.

Above all, The Last Of Us is one of the most incredible and emotional stories that I’ve ever played through in a video game. Bringing that story to a wider audience and making it more accessible is a fantastic thing, and I hope that this series will succeed, bring in huge numbers of viewers, and introduce this wonderful story to a whole new group of folks – while still finding ways to keep it exciting and engaging for people who’ve already experienced it. Based on the first couple of episodes, there are plenty of reasons to think it’s up to the task!

The Last Of Us is broadcast on HBO and streams on HBO Max in the United States and is broadcast on Sky Atlantic in the United Kingdom. The Last Of Us is the copyright of Naughty Dog, Sony Interactive Entertainment, and HBO. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Amazon Prime Video review – The Rig

Spoiler Warning: Though there are no major plot spoilers, minor spoilers are still present for The Rig.

The title of this piece was originally going to be “Miniseries review: The Rig,” because all of the marketing that I’d seen for this six-episode Amazon production led me to believe that it would be a one-and-done miniseries or limited series. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have tuned in if I’d have known it would end on a pretty substantial cliffhanger – especially when a continuation of the story hasn’t yet been greenlit. Even going into The Rig’s final moments, I was still anticipating a climax and resolution to its ethereal enviro-mystery. When the series ended I actually wondered if I’d missed an episode, or if there was more to come – but at time of writing, the six episodes currently available on Amazon Prime Video are all there is.

I hope that The Rig will get a second season or at least some kind of conclusion, because there was promise in its story and characters that I’d certainly be happy to pick up and see resolved. But for now, I guess the biggest takeaway from The Rig for me is this: do just a little bit more research before committing to watching something!

Title card for The Rig.

I’d seen advertisements for The Rig on Amazon’s homepage and plastered across social media, so at least here in the UK, it seems as though the show has had a decent marketing budget attached to it. The main splash banner on Amazon’s homepage has previously been reserved for Star Trek: Picard (in its first season, at least) and Amazon’s big productions like The Wheel of Time and The Rings of Power, so it certainly felt that the company was pushing its latest endeavour with all it could muster.

If only a few dollars from that marketing budget had been redirected to The Rig’s CGI and visual effects, though, because there were some pretty serious misfires in those departments, especially for a series that seems to be trying to compete at such a high level. Some of the CGI felt decidedly “last-gen,” as if it were something we’d have seen circa 2008. This was noticeable from literally the first second, as The Rig’s opening sequence was entirely animated, and not animated to anywhere near the high standards I’d expect from a corporation with the resources of Amazon.

The Rig’s opening CGI sequence was poor.

The opening CGI sequence left a poor first impression, and across the first couple of episodes especially, The Rig was having to work hard to overcome some low-budget visual effects. This extended beyond CGI into the physical space, too. The show’s signature “fog” effect looked decent enough when animated – nothing spectacular, but a step up from some of the other animation work, especially in those first couple of episodes. But when real actors were supposedly walking through the “fog,” I’m afraid the effect looked rather similar to what you’d get from those cheap smoke machines that became popular in discos a few years back. It looked poor – and for such an important part of the series, getting this wrong was, again, something that gave a poor impression.

However, while some CGI sequences remained poor across the entire six episodes, the animation work for the “spore” phenomenon that the crew encountered fared a lot better, and as this element was of particular importance to the story, getting it to look right was important.

An example of how the “spores” look.

The “spores” reminded me more than a little of The Expanse’s protomolecule, if you’re familiar with that sci-fi series (and if you aren’t, you should really check it out as its fantastic!) And this ties into a broader point about The Rig – the series brought to the table a number of elements that we’ve seen in other sci-fi films and franchises. There wasn’t too much originality in the production – which isn’t to say that it was bad by any means, but as the show progressed I definitely found myself noting more and more of these inclusions.

James Cameron’s The Abyss, released in 1989, was definitely a film that I felt The Rig was drawing inspiration from, not only thematically but visually, too. There was also the introduction of a corporate officer who knows more about the phenomenon than he lets on that felt like it had been lifted straight from Alien. And the “it was only trying to communicate” trope that clearly took inspiration from Star Trek. We also have the aforementioned visual effect that was similar to The Expanse… the list goes on! The way in which The Rig pieced these elements together was decent, and the fact that a story, visuals, or other elements of a production aren’t wholly original isn’t to say it’s awful – but it is worth noting how many narrative and design choices echoed other productions in the same mystery/sci-fi/thriller space.

Some of The Rig’s story beats and visuals felt familiar.

Despite being commissioned by Amazon and made by Amazon Studios for Amazon Prime Video, The Rig felt remarkably similar to dozens or perhaps even hundreds of British television shows that I’ve seen over the years. The cinematography, acting (and some actors, too), the musical score, the aforementioned low-budget VFX… all of it came together to feel very familiar. If I hadn’t known that I was watching The Rig on Amazon Prime Video you could’ve told me this was a show made by the BBC, Sky, or ITV and I’d have believed it, no question!

Part of The Rig’s marketing stated that it’s the first Amazon show to be wholly produced in Scotland – and I guess that explains why it feels so familiar to a British viewer! The director/executive producer, John Strickland, has worked on episodes of popular British shows like Poirot and Line of Duty, and I swear I’ve seen at least half of the cast before – in bit-part roles on shows like Holby City or Doctor Who.

The main cast and crew of The Rig at the show’s premiere in Scotland.
Image Credit: IMDB

Speaking of the cast, everyone involved did a good job at selling what was an increasingly sci-fi story. The characters all felt grounded and real, and even moments of exposition were delivered in ways that felt natural, informing us about certain characters’ histories and backstories without being too obtrusive. There’s some excellent scriptwriting and characterisation there, and the cast all did well to bring it to screen convincingly. I wouldn’t single out anyone for giving a disappointing performance; everyone on The Rig did a standout job.

There were some great moments involving practical makeup – particularly in one gory moment after a character suffered a fall. The way bruises, broken bones, and gaping wounds were constructed felt visceral and realistic, and at a moment where the story was only just beginning to take off, the shock value these simple practical effects had shouldn’t be overlooked.

Some great makeup was used to create wounds and injuries.

The Rig didn’t take long to get going – and in a series that only has six episodes, I guess that’s fair enough. My only point of criticism on this side of things would be that it felt as if at least some of the characters went from normal life to “panic mode” in a heartbeat – instead of a degradation in the crew’s mood from happy to irritable to angry and depressed taking a slower course. It felt as if The Rig got started, introduced us to its big storyline, and then the members of the crew who were going to get angry just snapped immediately, largely remaining in that state for the rest of the series. There was scope, I felt, to show how the effect of a disaster and being isolated with no field of vision or communications could slowly wear people down – and while The Rig tried to pay lip service to that at a couple of points, it didn’t really work convincingly.

That being said, there were some great character moments in all of the episodes that really showed off the tension and stresses that the worsening situation was putting people under. While I would have liked this to have been built up a bit more slowly, at the same time it’s worth saying that this wasn’t really what The Rig was all about, and considering the main thrust of the narrative was elsewhere, I guess it’s fair to say that this side of things was handled about as well as it could’ve been within the show’s time constraints.

Different character conflicts came to the fore in The Rig.

The Rig had a clear environmentalist message – one about climate change, the dangers of unchecked oil exploration, and the responsibility humankind has en masse for the damage to the atmosphere and natural world. But rather than allowing its sci-fi, rather ethereal story about ancient microorganisms to stand on its own as a metaphor, someone involved in The Rig’s production clearly insisted on inserting some rather clumsy dialogue to make this environmental message incredibly obvious and in-your-face.

For me, as someone who’s a huge fan of the Star Trek franchise, I think sci-fi like this works best when subtlety is the order of the day; when the analogy is given space to speak for itself without the script punching viewers in the face with the same message over and over. The Rig comes across, in these moments, as a show that doesn’t trust the intelligence of its own audience; its producers and writers want to make their environmentalist message clear, so they keep repeating it. Rather than trusting what was a well-constructed metaphor to make that point, The Rig drops these clumsy, awkward exchanges of dialogue in a desperate attempt to make things obvious. And I just found that to be unnecessary and a little disappointing.

One of the moments where a conversation about climate and environmental issues was very obvious.

Don’t get me wrong: I love a series with a moral and a message, and The Rig clearly has one. Climate change and the environment are causes that we definitely need to care about, pay attention to, and find solutions to out here in the real world, and although The Rig was never going to be high-brow “art” or a series that would change opinions and sway huge numbers of folks to its cause, it had a point to make and its metaphor about “the earth fighting back” against humanity’s destructiveness was a good one. Not a wholly original point, perhaps, but a decent one nevertheless.

But what the series didn’t need to do was constantly hammer that message home by other means – the metaphor at its heart was strong enough on its own to get that message across. We didn’t need half the cast to spout anti-oil, anti-fossil fuels, or pro-climate lines – especially pretty clunky, hammy ones – in order to get the message. The Rig had a point – but the way in which it went overboard ended up rather detracting from it.

Someone really wanted to make sure that The Rig’s environmental message came through!

One thing I admired about The Rig’s story is the way in which it blended some very ancient-feeling legends of the sea with modern science and technology to create its core mystery. For as long as humans have been sailing, there have been legends of strange phenomena out at sea, and The Rig seemed to take some of these as a starting point, combined with our lack of knowledge of the ocean floor in general, and weave them into its sci-fi mystery. The way in which it was done was clever, and it came to screen well.

There was a strong anti-corporate message in The Rig, particularly one that went after big oil corporations. Though Pictor, the corporation in the show, is fictional, it’s clearly based on real-world corporations like Shell, BP, and others, and The Rig doesn’t hold back when it comes to criticising the way in which these massive corporations are managed and their impact on the environment. As we got into the final couple of episodes, the inclusion of a secretive character from “head office,” the fact that they were unwilling to share what they knew – and how long they’d known about some of the problems affecting the Kinloch Bravo rig – really leant into this “corporate dystopia” angle, and I think that worked pretty well.

So let’s wrap things up and I’ll share my thoughts on The Rig as a whole.

The titular rig in the fog.

Overall, I felt that The Rig was an interesting series. Its core mystery certainly captured and held my attention, and even as its story descended from something semi-plausible into outright sci-fi, I was content to go along for the ride. I wouldn’t have climbed on board, however, if I’d realised that it was going to end on such an abrupt cliffhanger – and with no second season having been greenlit at time of writing, I fear the ending to this interesting story may never be told. All we can do is watch this space and hope that Amazon decides to go ahead with the next chapter!

On the technical side of things, though, I felt The Rig was let down by some pretty poor visual effects, both animated and practical, especially in its first couple of episodes. For a series that relies heavily on these things to set up its mysteries and narratives, the way in which some of them came across on screen wasn’t spectacular, and I’ve come to expect better from Amazon Prime Video in that respect.

So that was The Rig. An interesting series that I hope gets a continuation. If a second season, a film, or some other conclusion is in the offing, I daresay I’ll check it out. The Rig hadn’t been on my radar at all until I saw advertising for it on social media and Amazon’s homepage, but I was pleasantly surprised to find an enjoyable enough six-hour series with a good cast.

The Rig is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video. The Rig is the copyright of Amazon Studios and Amazon Prime Video. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Looking ahead to 2023

Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers may be present for some of the titles on this list.

As a new year gets underway, it’s a good opportunity to look ahead. There are some exciting-sounding films, television series, and video games that are currently on the schedule for 2023, and on this occasion I thought it could be fun to pick out a few that I find particularly interesting and preview them! I’ll share some of my preliminary, pre-release thoughts on ten of each.

On balance, I don’t think 2022 will be held in particularly high esteem in future in terms of its entertainment experiences. There were some good ones, but there were also plenty of delays and projects that just underwhelmed for one reason or another. Will 2023 fare any better? That’s still an open question… but there are certainly some big releases on the horizon that could potentially excel.

What does 2023 have in store?

It’s time for a couple of caveats! First of all, delays can happen at any time in the creative process, especially in a war-torn, pandemic-disrupted world. As a result, any or even all of the films, shows, and games that we’re going to talk about today could miss their intended release dates or release windows – and there really isn’t anything we can do about that! I’m firmly in the camp that says delays are almost always a net positive; while never fun, I’d rather creatives spent longer working on a project to finish getting it ready rather than launching it too soon. We don’t need to look far for examples of how wrong that goes!

Finally, these projects seem interesting or exciting to me personally for one reason or another… in my subjective opinion! I’m not trying to say that these are or will be “objectively the best” releases of 2023, nor should the exclusion from the lists below be interpreted as any kind of snub. I’ve just picked out a few projects that I find to be of interest, and if you hate all of my picks or I’ve excluded some of your favourites, please just keep in mind that this is only the opinion of one person!

With all of that out of the way, let’s get started!

Films:

I confess that I didn’t see a lot of films in 2022. I can’t go to the cinema any more due to my declining health, and while practically every major title made its way to a streaming platform last year, there were some I just wasn’t interested in or found that I didn’t have the right mindset or headspace for. That’s just the way it goes sometimes! That being said, there are some interesting films on the schedule for this year, and I shall be keeping an eye out for these ten in particular!

Film #1:
The Super Mario Bros. Movie

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the two trailers we’ve seen so far for The Super Mario Bros. Movie. The film looks like it’s going out of its way to stay as true as possible to its source material, while at the same time putting a twist on Mario’s adventures in the Mushroom Kingdom. The “hero who has to save a princess” trope has been rather overdone – and feels pretty outdated in 2023 in more ways than one – so seeing Luigi being held captive by the villainous Bowser and Mario working with Peach feels like it should be a great change of pace.

The inclusion of an all-star Hollywood cast has proven controversial in some quarters, but from what I’ve seen of the film so far, I will be surprised if most folks aren’t won over by the time the credits roll. There will be some die-hard haters – as there always are in any franchise any time something is changed – but overall, I have high hopes for this one. This film could easily be the best animated film of the year – and one of the best non-Disney animated films of the decade!

Film #2:
Dune: Part Two

The first part of Dune was a surprisingly strong adaptation of a book that has proven to be notoriously difficult to adapt. I had a fantastic time with it when it was released at the end of 2021, and I’ve been meaning to go back and re-watch it for some time now. I was concerned that this sequel might not see the light of day if Warner Bros. didn’t feel the first part did as well as they’d hoped – but fortunately there was no denying the critical and commercial success of Dune in 2021!

The cast from the first film are all reprising their roles, and director Denis Villeneuve is returning to the big chair. Filming officially wrapped a couple of months ago, and Dune: Part Two is well into post-production at this stage. A November release is on the cards, and I’m really excited to see the story continue.

Film #3:
Knock at the Cabin

Director M. Night Shyamalan has an inconsistent track record, and I suspect his career has been more harmed than helped by acquiring an early reputation as the “master of twists.” But regardless, he’s back with Knock at the Cabin in 2023, a psychological horror film about a family who are confronted by four people who claim to be trying to prevent the apocalypse.

The film’s premise sounds interesting to me, and a cast that features Jonathan Groff and Rupert Grint feels like it has potential. I wouldn’t say my expectations for Knock at the Cabin are sky-high, but we could certainly be in for one of the more interesting titles in the horror genre this year.

Film #4:
The Little Mermaid

To be blunt, I wasn’t blown away by the visuals in the teaser trailer for The Little Mermaid. The CGI looks fantastic, but the fully live-action moments didn’t feel convincingly “underwater,” and actually looked pretty amateurish. Assuming that Disney can figure out a way to pull off those underwater sequences convincingly, though, The Little Mermaid should be a creditable adaptation of the 1989 animated film.

Visual criticisms aside, I feel hopeful that this new version of The Little Mermaid will introduce the story to a new generation. While the animated film is still perfectly watchable in its own right, there’s nothing wrong with updating things and recreating the film for a younger audience, and Disney has a pretty good track record at doing so by now.

Film #5:
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

Is it a great idea to bring back Indiana Jones for another adventure? As a child of the ’80s, I’d be lying if I said I don’t enjoy the Indiana Jones films… but Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was already a let-down. Dial of Destiny could redeem the series, ending Harrison Ford’s turn with the famous hat and whip on a high note – or it could double down on the disappointment!

This film is definitely one I’m placing in the “interested in” rather than “excited about” category. I don’t really have high hopes, but I’d love to be proven wrong. At the very least, I hope Dial of Destiny will be a passable popcorn adventure flick. Whether it will truly live up to its illustrious forebears… well, I’m less hopeful of that. If it succeeds at bringing in a wad of cash, though, I think we can expect to see reboots, prequels, and spin-offs in the years ahead!

Film #6:
Asteroid City

There isn’t a lot to go on with this film, billed as a “romantic comedy-drama.” But the director, Wes Anderson, has pedigree, and has put together a diverse ensemble cast that rivals his previous pictures, such as The Grand Budapest Hotel. The full cast list is far too long to include, but some of the standout performers for me that I’m interested to see include Bryan Cranston, Tom Hanks, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, and Scarlett Johansson.

Though I’m not entirely sure what to expect from this one, it could be a lot of fun! The setting is the mid-1950s somewhere in the American Southwest, and some kind of “stargazer convention” will be part of the plot, too.

Film #7:
Wish

To mark the company’s centenary, Disney is going to release Wish – a film all about the “wishing star;” the star upon which characters in other Disney films have made their wishes. The star itself is going to be a character of sorts, but the film will also introduce a new cast of characters, including Asha, voiced by Ariana DeBose of West Side Story fame.

Wish will also bring back a hand-drawn animation style, something Disney hasn’t used since The Princess and the Frog more than a decade ago. While we haven’t seen just how the film will look, some concept art has been released that looks absolutely beautiful. Disney’s big animated releases are almost always fantastic, and I have high hopes for Wish.

Film #8:
The Haunted Mansion

The third Disney entry on this list, The Haunted Mansion is the company’s latest attempt to turn a theme park ride into a film! No one would deny that Pirates of the Caribbean set a high bar for that concept a few years ago, but other attempts haven’t always worked! An adaptation of The Haunted Mansion twenty years ago (that I’m fairly sure I’ve seen but can’t really remember much about) starred Eddie Murphy, but even he couldn’t salvage what critics regarded as a picture that was average at best.

Jungle Cruise may not have been 2021’s film of the year, but I enjoyed it for what it was, so there’s definitely room for another theme park adaptation. The Haunted Mansion could be great to watch around Halloween; a kind of lighter, child-friendly horror title that will be spooky… but not too spooky!

Film #9:
65

65 has an unusual premise – an astronaut accidentally travels back in time to the era of the dinosaurs, and must figure out a way to survive. Adam Driver will take the lead in this sci-fi action-adventure, and his presence alone should make it worth checking out. Driver’s performances as Kylo Ren in the Star Wars sequel trilogy were outstanding, and his turn as a divorcee in Marriage Story was Oscar-worthy in my opinion.

That being said, I can’t help but feel that 65 could go either way! Its premise could make for a different kind of sci-fi title in a genre overrun by sequels and comic book adaptations… or it could turn out to be an overblown B-movie that didn’t deserve a leading man of such quality! Time will tell… but I’m definitely interested to see how it shakes out.

Film #10:
Napoleon

Ridley Scott will direct this historical epic that focuses on the rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte. Scott has a great track record, with films like Alien and Thelma & Louise under his belt, but an earlier attempt at an historical epic – 1492: Conquest of Paradise – was not particularly well-received! Could this be a chance for redemption for the director in the genre?

The title role has gone to Joaquin Phoenix, and that feels like it could be an inspired choice. Backed up by a cast that features Ben Miles and Vanessa Kirby, I’ll be curious to see what Napoleon has to offer when it releases. The film will be an Apple TV+ exclusive, which is also a point of note.

Television Series:

2023 looks set to be another year where franchises, spin-offs, and continuations of ongoing stories dominate the television landscape. There are several big shows whose new seasons I’m eagerly anticipating, but it feels like there are fewer wholly original projects to look forward to. That being said, there were some great new stories in 2022 – so hopefully this year will bring along some surprises, too!

Television Series #1:
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
Season 2

Strange New Worlds was truly outstanding in its first season, blending old-school episodic storytelling with modern serialised elements. As much as I like what Discovery and Picard have done with season-long story arcs, the approach used by Strange New Worlds should, in my view at least, serve as a model for the entire Star Trek franchise going forward.

The show’s second season wrapped months ago – and I will be positively stunned if we don’t get an announcement that a third season is being worked on sometime before Season 2 premieres this spring. I absolutely cannot wait to spend more time with Captain Pike, Spock, and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise!

Television Series #2:
Hailey’s On It!

Hailey’s On It! is a Disney Channel animated series that will feature Moana’s Auli’i Cravalho in its leading role. The premise sounds interesting – a young woman must step outside of her comfort zone and confront her fears in order to “save the world.” And with Cravalho leading the charge, I think there’s the potential for the show to be something a little more than just a distraction that parents can use to get a few minutes’ peace!

The animation style shown off in concept art looks fantastic, and while I wouldn’t normally say that I’m excited for a new Disney Channel cartoon, I feel hopeful, at least, that Hailey’s On It! could be the kind of kids’ show that has something to offer to a grown-up audience as well.

Television Series #3:
Star Trek: Picard
Season 3

After a decidedly lacklustre second season, my disappointment was compounded by the announcement that all but one of the new characters introduced in Picard will not be returning for the show’s final outing. Season 3 has a lot of work to do, then, to pull out a satisfying ending to what has been a troubled production. If the trailers and teasers are anything to go by, it just might be up to the task after all!

The return of main characters from The Next Generation feels bittersweet because of who had to be unceremoniously kicked off stage to make room for them. This season could be a roaring return to form, or it could drown in failed attempts to play the nostalgia card. I’m absolutely hoping for the former… but trying to prepare myself for the latter.

Television Series #4:
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
Season 2

It isn’t entirely clear when The Rings of Power’s second season might be ready. Filming only started in October, and a series with such extensive post-production work may take a while. That’s not to mention that Season 2 is being filmed in new locations, and may even serve as somewhat of a soft reboot of a series that proved controversial in some quarters.

Despite that, however, I called The Rings of Power my favourite television series of 2022, so I’m incredibly excited to see what happens next. The first season ended with several massive cliffhangers for both individual characters and for the story as a whole, so it’ll be great to see the next chapter of this fantasy epic unfold.

Television Series #5:
Star Trek: Discovery
Season 5

Discovery’s fourth season ended on a high, with what is almost certainly one of the best episodes that the show has ever produced. I was concerned that the show would attempt yet another recycling of the old “the entire galaxy is in danger and only Burnham and the crew can save it!!!” narrative framework that has been used four times now… but thankfully, based on the first trailer and comments from the show’s producers, it seems as though Discovery will finally be bold enough to try something different!

As a result, my excitement for Season 5 grew immensely! Although Season 4 dragged in parts, on the whole I think it marks a turning point in the show’s run, and the addition of some wonderful secondary characters to the cast has given new life to a series that is rapidly approaching its sixth anniversary and sixty-fifth episode. Season 5 could build on what Season 4 did, taking these well-rounded characters to new thematic and storytelling places.

Television Series #6:
Masters of the Air

Produced by the same team that created Band of Brothers and The Pacific, this new World War II drama will follow the stories of members of the United States Army Air Forces – the precursor to the Air Force. The miniseries seems to be following a similar format to its popular predecessors, with an expansive cast of characters, almost all of whom are based on real people. Masters of the Air is based on a biography of the unit that was published in 2007.

I’m expecting a tightly-focused story with plenty of character. CGI and visual effects have improved since Band of Brothers premiered, so I’d hope that the show will look fantastic and really succeed at bringing World War II to life on the small screen.

Television Series #7:
Shōgun

The second adaptation of James Clavell’s 1975 novel has a lot to live up to! An earlier adaptation, made in 1980, was one of the most popular shows of the year, and with a troubled production that saw scripts scrapped and rewritten, new showrunners brought on board, and a shoot that overran by two months… let’s just say that Shōgun has work to do.

But the story, set in 17th Century Japan, is an interesting one, and there’s potential in this new adaptation to see it introduced to legions of new fans. A shipwreck sets up the story of a “fish-out-of-water” hero in an unfamiliar land, and the palace intrigue at the castle of the titular Shōgun could rival the very best drama series of the year.

Television Series #8:
The Last Of Us

Video game adaptations are notoriously difficult, but The Last Of Us has an all-star cast, a sky-high budget, and crucially, it seems to have won over many fans of the video game. The Last Of Us is one of the best video game narratives that I’ve ever experienced, and it feels like a natural fit for a serialised drama series; the story would certainly be far too long to condense into a film. So I’m hopeful that – finally – a video game adaptation will get the accolades it deserves!

Moreover, I’m really excited to be able to show this fascinating and unique horror-drama story to friends and family members who have no interest in gaming. The story of The Last Of Us is fabulous and absolutely deserves to find a bigger audience. There’s reason to hope that this adaptation will be up to the task.

Television Series #9:
Halo
Season 2

I enjoyed what the Halo series did in its first season, all things considered. It succeeded at bringing the long-running video game franchise to the small screen, adapting its story to fit the new format and making a few changes along the way. Some of those changes proved controversial – as such things always do – and I can certainly entertain the argument that there was less action than fans were hoping for.

But Halo will press on, potentially taking on board some of those criticisms, and it’s my hope that Season 2 will build on the accomplishments of Season 1 to progress the story in an enjoyable way. The first season had some great performances, clever cinematography that incorporated a first-person perspective during key sequences, and a mysterious story that will have kept even fans of the games guessing. I’m interested, and dare I say even excited, to see more.

Television Series #10:
Faraway Downs

I am joking. This is a joke. Nobody should ever be tortured into watching Faraway Downs. I can honestly think of nothing less appealing than watching an extended, reworked version of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia – quite possibly the worst film that I have ever had the misfortune to see. When I heard that Luhrmann was planning to use cut footage to expand Australia into a six-part miniseries I was flabbergasted. Who on earth would possibly want to see this? Was anyone asking for it to be made?

I’d rather trek to the bottom of the garden, heave the lid off the septic tank, and spend six hours staring unblinkingly at the festering sewage within.

Television Series #10:
The Three-Body Problem

China can often feel like a world unto itself; western productions struggle to cross over, and Chinese productions seldom attract mainstream attention over here. The Three-Body Problem is an adaptation of a Chinese sci-fi novel (or rather, the first part of a trio of novels) and is helmed by Game of Thrones’ showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss.

I haven’t read The Three-Body Problem, but the premise sounds absolutely fascinating to me. Benioff and Weiss have proven themselves capable when it comes to adapting novels for the small screen – at least, completed novels – so there’s reason to hope that The Three-Body Problem will be interesting and entertaining in equal measure. This one could easily go toe-to-toe with the likes of Foundation in the sci-fi genre.

Video Games:

There are some massive releases on the schedule for 2023 – several of which were originally promised for last year! If even one of these big titles succeeds, 2023 will already be a great year for gaming. Single-player games are definitely holding the line in an industry where online multiplayer continues to bring in the big bucks, so there are plenty of reasons to think that 2023 could actually turn out to be a fantastic year for the medium.

Video Game #1:
Tchia

I’ve been tracking the progress of this amazing-looking indie game for more than a year, and it looks like 2023 could be Tchia’s moment. Based on legends from the developers’ New Caledonia home, Tchia will see players take on the role of a young girl on a quest to rescue her father. In addition to platforming and action-adventure gameplay in an open-world archipelago based on the island of New Caledonia, the ambitious game promises to unleash players’ creativity – and even includes a playable ukulele!

There have been some fantastic debut games by indie studios in recent years. My game of the year in 2021 was Kena: Bridge of Spirits – and without wanting to raise expectations too high, at least part of me is hoping that Tchia might just reach that same high bar.

Video Game #2:
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
DLC: Booster Course Pass Waves 4, 5, and 6

You might think it a cheat to include a piece of downloadable content on this list, but it’s my list so that’s just tough! Although I was disappointed not to see a wholly new Mario Kart title in 2022, the Booster Course Pass for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has been a surprising amount of fun. Not only have racetracks from past games in the series been updated and made welcome returns, but wholly new tracks have been created, too.

The Booster Course Pass is only half-finished, and three more waves are planned for 2023. Specific dates aren’t known, nor is it certain which racetracks will be appearing, but I’m nevertheless excited to have more Mario Kart to get stuck into!

Video Game #3:
Star Trek: Resurgence

A narrative adventure game with a branching storyline sounds like a perfect fit for the Star Trek franchise. After years in which no new Star Trek games had been licensed for PC or home consoles, two have come along within a few months of each other; Resurgence is hot on the heels of last year’s Star Trek: Prodigy – Supernova, which I really must get around to playing!

The game is being developed by folks who used to work for studio Telltale Games, a developer whose games were often praised for their narratives. I’m hopeful that, after a drought of games for Trekkies who aren’t interested in the online multiplayer scene, Resurgence will be a welcome return to the video game realm for the Star Trek franchise.

Video Game #4:
Disney Speedstorm

Developers Gameloft worked with Disney and created my favourite gaming experience of 2022: Disney Dreamlight Valley. Having taken Nintendo’s Animal Crossing formula and massively improved upon it… could they be about to do the same thing by creating a Disney-based rival to the Mario Kart series? Maybe that’s expecting too much… but Disney Speedstorm looks like a ton of fun!

I like casual, arcade-style racing games, and I’m a pretty big Disney fan, too. Bring those two things together and I hope it’ll be a fun time.

Video Game #5:
Starfield

One of the year’s biggest releases has to be Bethesda’s Starfield – the company’s first foray into a wholly new world in a quarter of a century. An epic sci-fi adventure has been promised, with all of the hallmarks of past Bethesda titles: joinable factions, a huge mix of varied side-quests, diverse non-player characters to interact with, customisation of every facet of your character, and much more besides.

Starfield will also give players the opportunity to design and upgrade their very own spaceship, before setting off to journey to one of a thousand different planets across dozens of star systems. Starfield is ambitious, and while there are certainly things that give me pause – such as Bethesda’s insistence on reusing its outdated game engine – I can already feel myself getting swept along by a growing hype train!

Video Game #6:
The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria

I confess that I’m not entirely sure what to expect from this one. The game promises base-building and adventures in the Dwarven realm of Moria, set years after The Lord of the Rings as the Dwarves seek to reclaim their abandoned halls. It sounds as if the game will be set up for multiplayer – though the official blurb promises that it can be played solo, too.

There’s something about an underground setting that harkens back to the days of dungeon-crawler games, and the subterranean setting combined with the lore of Tolkien’s Middle-earth could make for a genuinely exciting title. I’m curious and perhaps a little hopeful of having some fun adventures deep underground!

Video Game #7:
Star Wars Jedi: Survivor

The much-anticipated sequel to Jedi: Fallen Order is almost ready! The game – which I played through back in 2020 – is one of the best Star Wars experiences I’ve had in recent years, and it was left open-ended by the time the credits rolled. Finding out what happens next for Cal Kestis, the former Jedi padawan, is something I’m really interested in!

Jedi: Survivor seems to have taken the gameplay of Fallen Order and expanded upon it, giving Cal new weapons and abilities – and at least one new companion, too. I recently played through it for a second time, which seems to be perfect timing with the sequel coming up! I really can’t wait to join Cal and the crew of the Stinger Mantis for another adventure in a galaxy far, far away.

Video Game #8:
Forspoken

Unlike many action-adventure titles, it seems as though Forspoken will focus much more on magic and spell-casting – something that could be absolutely fascinating. Set in an open-world, the game will follow the story of Frey, a young woman from our world who finds herself transported into a mysterious realm where magic exists and must find her way home.

Forspoken hadn’t really been on my radar until recently, but I’m now genuinely looking forward to it.

Video Game #9:
Perfect Dark

Though unconfirmed at this stage, Xbox’s Perfect Dark remake/reimagining would be well-timed if it should be ready this year – because the original game on the Nintendo 64 was set in 2023! Perfect Dark was originally created by Rare, hot on the heels of their success with Goldeneye 007 on the same platform, and it was a ton of fun when it released in the year 2000.

I’m genuinely curious to see what a recreated Perfect Dark might look like. Could it kick off another first-person shooter series for Xbox… and, perhaps more importantly, for Microsoft’s Game Pass service? I think that’s a possibility – but my main hope is that the single-player campaign will be fun to play through!

Video Game #10:
EA Sports FC

Bear with me on this one, okay? I know football (soccer) isn’t everyone’s favourite thing, and I know that sports games – and especially Electronic Arts’ sports games – have been particularly scummy with their in-game gambling and monetisation. But for the first time since EA published FIFA International Soccer in 1993, the corporation won’t have the official license or naming rights from world football’s governing body. That could mean we’re about to witness a sea change in the series… or it could lead to nothing of consequence at all!

Nevertheless, I’m curious to see what changes – if any – will come about as a result of EA and FIFA going their separate ways. Will EA Sports FC be noticeably different from recent entries in the FIFA series? We’ll find out later this year!

So that’s it!

We’ve picked out ten films, ten television shows, and ten video games to watch out for as 2023 gets underway. There will be many surprises along the way, I have no doubt, and it’s possible that some of the entertainment experiences that I’m excited in right now will either end up being disappointments or won’t even make it out of the door this year. But I’m hopeful that we’ll get some exciting, dramatic, and just plain fun stories to enjoy between now and Christmas!

There are definitely things to look forward to. I’ll try to cover at least some of these titles with reviews, first impressions, and general commentary here on the website over the next twelve months. I hope that you found this interesting, and that it was a fun, positive look ahead to some of what I hope will be the entertainment highlights of 2023.

Until next time!

All titles discussed above are the copyrights of their respective studio, developer, publisher, distributor, broadcaster, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

End-of-Year Awards 2022

Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers may be present for some of these titles.

As we enter the final hours of 2022, it’s time to look back at the entertainment experiences that we’ve enjoyed – as well as a few that we didn’t enjoy all that much! I’ve cobbled together a few categories from the world of television, film, and video games, and today I’m going to hand out some highly-coveted Trekking with Dennis Awards to some of my favourites!

You’ll find a couple of titles from the tail end of 2021 on this list; I reckon anything released in December is fair game as those titles often get the short end of the stick when it comes to lists like these. Some outlets put together their “best of” lists way back at the start of December, which is far too early in my opinion! But we’re drifting off-topic already!

It’s time to hand out my End-of-Year Awards!

There are plenty of titles that, for one reason or another, I didn’t get around to this year – so for reasons that I hope are obvious they can’t be included. I’m only one person and I don’t have every minute of the day to devote to these pursuits, so the exclusion from this list of certain big titles shouldn’t be interpreted as any kind of deliberate snub!

And as always, a caveat before we begin: all of this is the subjective opinion of one person. I may give an award to a production you vehemently hate, or talk negatively about something you enjoyed, but at the end of the day this is supposed to be a bit of fun. Feel free to disagree with any or all of my picks – but there’s no need to take any of it too seriously!

With all of that out of the way, let’s get started!

Best Television Miniseries/Limited Series:

πŸ₯ˆβ€ŠRunner-UpπŸ₯ˆβ€Š
Five Days At Memorial

Five Days At Memorial had the challenging task of dramatising a real-world event – and a gruelling one at that. I remember the harrowing news reports in 2005 showing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and I could absolutely understand why some folks might feel it’s too soon to make a programme like this. But for my money, Five Days At Memorial did a good job at adapting the events at Memorial Hospital as delicately as possible, staying true to what happened while still making the story engrossing and understandable for viewers.

The fact that Five Days At Memorial shows what happened at Memorial Hospital from two very different angles felt a bit strange at first, but by doing so the series lends the events the challenging ambiguity that they continue to have. By refusing to come down on one side or another – to condemn as guilty or exonerate Dr Pou – Five Days At Memorial strikes the right balance. There was some choppy editing in some sequences that meant the miniseries didn’t feel as smooth as it could’ve, but other than that it was a very interesting look at a very difficult moment in the recent past.

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
1899

Netflix original 1899 is taking the crown in this category this year. The show goes on a wild and unpredictable ride, blending themes of mental health that resonated strongly with me with mystery and psychological horror. The multilingual series is, in my view, best enjoyed without being dubbed, as the different characters and the language barriers between them are key elements in the story at several crucial junctures.

I was first attracted to 1899 because of its setting – both in time, at the end of the 19th Century, and on a boat making a transatlantic voyage. But what I found when I got started was one of the most unique and different television productions that I’ve seen in a long time. 1899 may not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it absolutely riveting all the way through.

Worst Television Series:

πŸ† “Winner” πŸ†
Obi-Wan Kenobi

After I’d enjoyed what The Book of Boba Fett brought to the table, I felt a pang of hope that Obi-Wan Kenobi might at least be passable. But it wasn’t to be, and the series was a horrible slog through the absolute worst kind of tacked-on story that used increasingly desperate nostalgia plays to try to recreate some of the magic that, frankly, Star Wars hasn’t had since the ’80s.

Say it with me, folks: it’s time for Star Wars to move on! The vast sandbox that is the Star Wars galaxy has trillions of inhabitants, millions of star systems, thousands of planets, and hundreds of factions and organisations – and tens of thousands of years of history that could explore any of them. For more than forty years, Star Wars has been laser-focused on the same handful of characters and the same tiny sliver of this wonderful setting, but it’s over. If Star Wars is to survive, something’s gotta change. Obi-Wan Kenobi proved that.

Best Television Series:

πŸ₯ˆβ€ŠRunner-UpπŸ₯ˆβ€Š
Halo

Halo wasn’t spectacular, but as the first real attempt to bring the long-running video game franchise into a new medium, it got a lot right. The story it told was a riff on the familiar story that fans will remember from the games, but there were important differences which not only kept the mystery going, but also gave genuine characterisation to the Master Chief.

In terms of cinematography, I liked the way that Halo incorporated some first-person sequences into its action-heavy moments. This could have easily felt like a gimmick, but the way it was done – and crucially, not overdone – made it feel like a throwback to the series’ source material while also mixing things up in the television space. Halo used a fairly standard format that would be familiar to anyone who’s seen a made-for-streaming television show in the past few years, with a slowly unfolding mystery, multiple storylines, and characters who grow and change over the course of the series. It wasn’t anything groundbreaking, and I certainly get the argument that it wasn’t as action-packed as some fans might’ve wanted. But it was, all in all, a decent bit of sci-fi.

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

The Rings of Power had a lot of work to do to impress me. It had to live up to the legacy of the trilogy of films from a few years ago. It had to show that it could go toe-to-toe with the likes of Game of Thrones, The Witcher, and other big-budget productions in the fantasy space. And, to be blunt, it had to justify its billion-dollar price tag.

Whether The Rings of Power managed to accomplish all of those goals in its first season is still arguably an open question. But it certainly laid the groundwork for what should be a television spectacular, and it was, on balance, probably the best show I’ve seen this year. When I was at a low ebb in the autumn and didn’t have the energy or headspace for watching many new things, The Rings of Power was the one show that I made time for. Sure, there were big battles and other CGI spectaculars, but there were also some genuinely wonderful performances that brought to life some incredible character-focused storytelling. I can’t wait for Season 2!

Best Web Series:

πŸ₯ˆβ€ŠRunner-UpπŸ₯ˆβ€Š
How To Cake It

After a hiatus of more than a year, YouTube show How To Cake It made a welcome return this year. This time, there’s less of a focus on the kind of attention-grabbing, visually spectacular cakes that look like rocket ships or Princess Elsa or a completely different food, and I think that’s actually been a positive thing! Host Yolanda Gampp has branched out, doing much more of a variety when it comes to baking. Some highlights include flavoured cookies, baklava, and even popcorn.

As often happens when a web series takes an extended break, recent episodes of How To Cake It haven’t been doing the same numbers as the series used to get. But I hope that, as time goes by, it will pick up some of those wayward viewers – and perhaps bring on board a whole host of new ones, too. This new version of How To Cake It seems to be making more down-to-earth recipes that you or I might feel brave enough to attempt, rather than showing off impressive designs that only a master baker could create. For me at least, that’s a great thing, and I hope to see much more from Yolanda and the team in the new year.

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
Anti-Chef

If How To Cake It shows a master at work, Anti-Chef – as the name suggests – is the complete opposite! The show is a lot of fun, and Jamie, the host, isn’t shy about sharing his failures in the kitchen as he works his way through some very complicated recipes. Though he’s not a total newbie any more, many of the techniques in the recipes he challenges himself to try are very advanced, and the personal, relatable style makes me feel like I’m right there in the kitchen.

I love a good cooking show, and as much fun as it can be to see an experienced chef at work, it can be even more entertaining to see an inexperienced home cook tackling some of these recipes. Anti-Chef has given me a lot of laughs this year – but also some cooking tips and inspiration, too.

The Worst of Star Trek:

πŸ† “Winner” πŸ†
Most of Picard Season 2

I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to call out Picard Season 2, but I think it’s earned a place on this list. The first episode of Season 2 was absolutely fantastic, and if the rest of the season had been anywhere close to that level, we’d be talking about Picard as the best show of the year. But unfortunately things took a pretty sharp nose-dive after the second episode of the season, with Picard and his crew wandering aimlessly for much of the season in a present-day setting that didn’t feel inspiring or enjoyable in the least.

By the time the action returned to the 25th Century in the second half of the season finale, the damage had been done, and despite Farewell pulling out a decent ending, this disconnected, disjointed, overly-long story has to go down as one of Star Trek’s big misses – perhaps even one of the biggest missteps in the franchise’s history. There were individual elements in most episodes that I can honestly say that I enjoyed… but Picard Season 2 overall feels like a massive disappointment.

Star Trek’s Biggest Surprises:

πŸ₯ˆβ€ŠRunner-UpπŸ₯ˆβ€Š
Kobayashi
Star Trek: Prodigy

We ought to talk more about Prodigy here on the website – and I hope we will next year! But for now, the episode Kobayashi came out of nowhere in January to be one of the biggest surprises in the show’s first season. The Kobayashi Maru training programme famously tests would-be captains in a “no-win scenario,” and you wouldn’t think that premise would lead to such a genuinely heartwarming and wholesome episode – but as a longstanding fan, I really appreciated what Kobayashi brought to the table.

Without giving too much away, the Kobayashi Maru scenario plays out on the holodeck, and a cast of fan-favourite Star Trek characters all join in on the action. It’s a nostalgic treat – but it doesn’t overplay its hand, keeping a tight focus on the new characters introduced in Prodigy.

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
All Those Who Wander
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Strange New Worlds had an incredible first season, showing off a varied, episodic approach in which it wasn’t shy about trying out many different genres. All Those Who Wander draws inspiration from the likes of The Thing and Alien to create a tense, claustrophobic sense of horror aboard a crashed starship.

It’s hard to say too much more without getting into spoiler territory – and of all the episodes in Season 1, All Those Who Wander has to be the most important to go into un-spoiled! Suffice to say that the episode takes the horror angle right up to the edge of my personal comfort zone, but never crosses that line. It’s an intense experience, and one that shows just how incredible Star Trek can be when it throws itself into another genre.

The Best of Star Trek:

πŸ₯ˆβ€ŠRunner-UpπŸ₯ˆβ€Š
Coming Home
Star Trek: Discovery

Discovery’s fourth season plodded along, in places, and definitely teased us with mysterious factions and characters that ultimately turned out to be brand-new. But by the time the season finale rolled around, most of that was already settled. What we got was an incredibly emotional episode that saw Captain Burnham and the crew racing against time to reach an unknown, uncontacted alien race.

There were resolutions to disagreements between characters, several incredibly dramatic moments, and a storyline involving Admiral Vance at Federation HQ that showed off Starfleet and the Federation at their very best. Coming Home is, without a doubt, one of Discovery’s very best episodes.

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
A Quality of Mercy
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Captain Pike gets a visit from “the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come” in A Quality of Mercy – and the episode is incredible. In Discovery Season 2, when it became apparent that Captain Pike knew in advance that he was going to suffer a debilitating accident, an obvious question would be “why didn’t he try to prevent it?” And A Quality of Mercy takes that idea and runs with it.

In addition to a very emotional story involving Captain Pike – one that I, as a disabled person, found incredibly relatable – there’s also a wonderful callback to an episode of The Original Series, and moments for all of the main characters to get a chance to shine. Ethan Peck puts in a spectacular performance as Spock, and there was even time at the very end of the episode for one final twist as the curtain fell on one of the best seasons of Star Trek ever put to screen.

Best Animated Film:

πŸ₯ˆβ€ŠRunner-UpπŸ₯ˆβ€Š
Minions: The Rise of Gru

The Despicable Me franchise is usually good for some fun escapism, and so it proved again with The Rise of Gru. There isn’t anything completely groundbreaking here; you know how the titular Minions behave by now. But stepping back in time to a ’70s setting allowed for some fun jokes, and the over-the-top villains that Gru encountered were a ton of fun.

There was still heart and emotion in The Rise of Gru thanks to Gru’s relationship with the villainous Wild Knuckles, and that did enough to ground what was otherwise a pretty wacky adventure. There were plenty of references and callbacks to other franchises for nerds like us to enjoy, and on the whole, I had a good time with the film. I’m not in a desperate rush to re-watch it, but it was good fun for what it was.

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
Encanto

After several years in which Disney has focused on live-action adaptations and sequels, Encanto came along like a breath of fresh air! It’s one of the best Disney films of the current era without a doubt, with a deeply engrossing and frequently emotional story that has an uplifting message. And thanks to a wonderful soundtrack by the phenomenally talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, there are some incredible songs too!

A setting inspired by Colombia was also something different for a major Disney production, and the company has done well at diversifying the peoples and places it depicts in its major releases. But that would have been meaningless had Encanto not been such a wonderful, well-told story – and I’m so very pleased that it was.

Best Live-Action Film:

πŸ₯ˆβ€ŠRunner-UpπŸ₯ˆβ€Š
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

With the caveat that I didn’t see that many films this year, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is definitely up there as one of the better ones! I genuinely couldn’t believe that this film existed when I first heard of its premise – Nicolas Cage playing a fictionalised version of himself and going on a wacky adventure. But you know what? I’m very glad that it does!

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent could have ended up as a bargain-bin B-movie – or worse, it could’ve tried to take itself far too seriously. But instead it leans into a kind of self-deprecating humour as well as tropes of the action genre, coming across as light-hearted and just plain fun. Nicolas Cage is a good sport for taking part, and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is definitely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it already.

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
All Quiet on the Western Front

Netflix’s reimagining of this classic German war film is absolutely brutal. If any film has ever come close to accurately depicting the true horrors of the First World War, this is it. The story follows a young conscript from Germany as he joins the army and is dispatched to the front line, and then jumps ahead to the closing days of the war.

Every version of All Quiet on the Western Front – and there have now been three adaptations of the original novel – have shown just how senseless and meaningless war can be, taking a very individualist, human look at warfare. This version hammers that home, and can be uncomfortable viewing. But it’s an incredibly powerful film – one that absolutely deserves to be in contention for some of the top awards.

The “I-didn’t-play-this-game-but-you-probably-should” Award:

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
Elden Ring

I wish I could say I was interested in Elden Ring… but I’m just not. The “difficult for the sake of it” style of gameplay that has come to be known as the “Souls-like” genre just isn’t my cup of tea, but by all accounts Elden Ring is one of the best examples of this type of game, and one of the best games of the year – if not the generation.

Taking the Dark Souls format into an expansive open-world setting, Elden Ring has won almost universal acclaim from critics and players alike, becoming one of the most talked-about releases of the year. For a single-player title in a gaming landscape increasingly dominated by the online multiplayer scene, I think that’s a fantastic thing, and even though Elden Ring isn’t for me, I still think it’s worth noting it as one of the most important releases of the year.

Best Browser Game:

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
Wordle

I wouldn’t usually dedicate much time to browser games on a list like this, but since I first played Wordle back in February or March, I don’t think I’ve missed a single day. The format is fun, with a single word each day to guess and only six chances to get it right. Wordle was snapped up by the New York Times and has since spawned dozens or perhaps even hundreds of clones – including variants that have multiple words to guess, and variants based on specific topics or franchises. There’s even a Star Trek-themed one!

Wordle blew up to become an internet phenomenon in 2022, and for a while it seemed like you couldn’t move for people showing off their Wordle results on social media. It’s become part of my daily routine – and my current streak is 77 wins in a row, going all the way back to the middle of October!

The “buggy piece of crap” Award:

πŸ† “Winner” πŸ†
Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection (PC version)

The PC port of Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection is the worst I’ve come across in recent years. I’d thought that the days of amateurish PC ports were finally over, but PlayStation Studios, Naughty Dog, and Iron Galaxy Studios showed me that I was wrong about that. In short, Uncharted is incredibly poorly-optimised for PC, with a piss-poor frame rate and weird visual and texture bugs that were incredibly offputting. The screenshot above shows off one such glitch.

It’s such a shame because the Uncharted series has always been a blast. The Indiana Jones-inspired games still feel like something different in the action-adventure space, even with the likes of Tomb Raider being reimagined for a new generation. The stories present here are great – but if I have to spend as much time battling bugs as I do enemies, I’m going to have a bad time. Other PlayStation titles – like Spider-Man and God of War – don’t have these issues, so I don’t understand how Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection managed to launch on PC in such a bad state.

Best Expansion Pack/DLC:

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe – Booster Course Pass

The Booster Course Pass has given Mario Kart 8 Deluxe a new lease on life – even if it’s not as transformative as a new entry in the series would’ve been. I was disappointed as the year went by and it became clear that there would be no Mario Kart 9, but the Booster Course Pass has definitely convinced me to dust off my Nintendo Switch and pick up Mario Kart 8 Deluxe again.

The “wave” approach to the DLC has been fun, too, keeping the game feeling fresher for longer when compared to dumping all 48 new racetracks at once. Don’t get me wrong, the longevity of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is still an issue, and I now have the additional concern that there will be fewer racetracks left to adapt whenever Mario Kart 9 eventually comes along. But in the short-term, the Booster Course Pass is proving to be great fun.

Game of the Year:

πŸ₯ˆβ€ŠRunner-UpπŸ₯ˆβ€Š
Stray

Stray is absolutely adorable: a game in which you get to play as a kitty cat! I was sold on that premise alone, but what I found when I got stuck in was a genuinely enjoyable, well-paced, well-structured indie title. Stray has great graphics, with the movement of the main cat character in particular being incredibly realistic. There’s some wonderful art design in both the environments and the robotic non-player characters, too.

Stray is further proof that there’s plenty of life in the narrative, linear, single-player space, and that not every game needs to be forced into the open-world mould. But at the same time, it’s something very different. Not only is the idea of playing as an animal unique, but the game’s slow pace and focus on peaceful interaction with the environment instead of combat and quick-time events all make for a relaxing, yet deeply engrossing experience.

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
Disney Dreamlight Valley

If you’d told me a few months ago that my favourite game of 2022 would be an early access Disney title, I wouldn’t have believed it! But I’ve sunk well over 150 hours into Disney Dreamlight Valley since its launch at the end of August, and I’ve been having an incredible time. The game basically took all of my criticisms of Animal Crossing: New Horizons and fixed them, then threw in dozens of new features I didn’t even know I wanted – and some fun Disney-centric stories with a diverse cast of characters for good measure.

Disney Dreamlight Valley is so much fun and has so much to offer, even in this early access form, that it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s an interesting main quest, dozens of character-focused missions, the kind of home-building and design gameplay that players loved about titles like The Sims, and all of the fun of living another life in a fantasy land as you’d expect from an Animal Crossing game. There’s so much to love about Disney Dreamlight Valley, and I’m happy to crown it my favourite game of the year.

So that’s it!

At the first Academy Awards in 1929, Joseph Farnham receives his award from Douglas Fairbanks.
Image Credit: oscars.org

We’ve dished out awards to some of my favourite entertainment experiences of the year. The countdown is on to 2023 – there are just hours left until the sun will rise on a whole new year! Stay tuned in the days ahead because I plan to take a look at some of the things I’m most looking forward to between now and Christmas. Is that the earliest you’ve seen someone mention Christmas 2023?

I hope that this was a bit of fun. There were plenty of enjoyable films, television shows, and video games this year – despite the delays that still hang over the entertainment industry. Though I wouldn’t say that 2022 is likely to go down in history as one of the best-ever years for entertainment, I think we still got a wide variety of experiences, many of which were enjoyable.

So I suppose all that’s left to say is this: Happy New Year! Whatever you plan to do, I hope you have a wonderful time!

See you next year!

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


Check out reviews or articles featuring some of the films, games, and TV shows mentioned on this list by clicking or tapping the links below:

The Halo TV Series

Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

Strange New Worlds Season 1

Star Trek: Discovery 4×13: Coming Home

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe – Booster Course Pass

Disney Dreamlight Valley

House of the Dragon: first impressions

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the first episode of House of the Dragon.

It’s been a little over three years since Game of Thrones went off the air. That show’s disappointing final season and conclusion did a lot of damage to its brand – and may be a contributing factor to the delay in concluding the series of novels upon which it was originally based. As I wrote once, the incredibly negative reception to the way that Game of Thrones ended effectively killed any residual support the show had and removed it from our collective cultural conversation. The show’s legacy is the reshaping of the world of entertainment, with high fantasy enjoying a renaissance, multi-season serialised stories coming to the fore, the “disposable casts” of characters who could be killed off at any moment, and more besides. But Game of Thrones itself isn’t the phenomenon it once was.

The rise of big-budget fantasy and genre shows in the wake of Game of Thrones has led to projects like The Rings of Power, which will premiere next month, as well as The Wheel of Time, The Witcher, and even to an extent shows like Star Trek: Discovery, which has brought into the Star Trek franchise some of the tenets of storytelling in this post-Thrones world. All of these projects, and others like them, mean that there’s intense competition for viewers in this space.

Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen on a promotional poster for House of the Dragon.

This is the environment in which House of the Dragon has premiered. Undermined by the evident failures of Game of Thrones’ final season and no longer a singular phenomenon, the series has to attempt to carve out a new niche and demonstrate that it can bring something at least superficially different to the table. More of the same won’t cut it for fans who were left disappointed by Game of Thrones, and with ever more big-budget shows in the fantasy space, House of the Dragon has a lot of work to do. Based on its premiere episode, I’m not sure it will be up to the task.

House of the Dragon needs to define itself, to stand on its own two feet and demonstrate how it can be something new and different rather than just “more Game of Thrones,” and in its premiere it did nothing of the sort. The story outline feels incredibly familiar, with a focus on quarrelling aristocratic factions as they vie for the throne. The aesthetic and feel of the series have scarcely moved, with the same costumes, sets, music, and even cinematography clearly trying to emulate what has come before. It brought back as much sex, violence, and gore as it could fit into its premiere episode, too – all hallmarks of Game of Thrones, and elements that helped that series to stand out from the pack in its early seasons.

A jousting tourney was the stage for one of several violent clashes in the series premiere.

House of the Dragon introduces us to an ageing, weakened king, a young Targaryen princess, a mad Targaryen prince, and even has the audacity to dump in some foreshadowing of the Night King, the Long Winter, and events we saw unfold in Game of Thrones in a particularly ham-fisted sequence that laid on the exposition with some pretty clunky dialogue. I guess some kind of overt connection to Game of Thrones was inevitable – but it didn’t need to come in the premiere, and it certainly could’ve been toned down or at least worded less clumsily.

In terms of visual effects, I again felt House of the Dragon did not excel – particularly when considering the sky-high budget afforded to the series by HBO. There were too many moments where the blending of CGI with real actors and sets was noticeable, such as during long establishing shots of the jousting tournament. Visual differences between what the camera picked up and what the artists and animators imagined were noticeable enough to pull me out of some sequences altogether. Some fully-animated sequences, such as a flyover of Kings Landing early in the episode, likewise strayed into the “uncanny valley,” and when we’ve seen lesser shows with lower budgets pull off similar sequences much better, House of the Dragon has definitely come up short.

Animation work in House of the Dragon wasn’t fantastic.

This one is purely a personal taste thing, but I don’t like the refurbished throne room set. The iconic Iron Throne is now framed by a small forest of foam-rubber swords that neither improve its look from Game of Thrones nor come close to recreating its appearance as described in the original novel series. The effect looks cheap, and while I’ll credit the creative team for doing something to try to differentiate the series from its predecessor, for me it doesn’t work.

So far, I see no evidence that HBO has truly taken to heart the criticisms fans had of Game of Thrones as that series came to its end. “More of the same” isn’t going to cut it, and House of the Dragon feels like the second coming of Game of Thrones – and that isn’t for the better. If it was 2010 all over again, maybe it would indeed be good enough. But in a television landscape that has completely changed over the past twelve years, House of the Dragon has to do more than that. When compared with other offerings in the same genre on other networks or streaming services, House of the Dragon manages to feel aggressively average.

The new look of the Iron Throne – complete with additional foam-rubber swords – isn’t doing it for me.

The Rings of Power is hot on the heels of House of the Dragon, and despite also taking place in a long-established world, that series feels newer and fresher, somehow, than House of the Dragon does. I can’t escape the feeling that we’re going to get a story that will ultimately feel rather samey, and while that doesn’t mean there won’t be twists, turns, and excitement along the way, I’m not convinced that that will be good enough. House of the Dragon has a legacy to live up to – but it also has a legacy it must surpass. When it comes to the latter, there’s no evidence that it’s even willing to try – at least, nothing of the sort was forthcoming in the series premiere.

Familiar musical stings, recycled sets, and character archetypes who harken back to the “glory days” of Game of Thrones’ early seasons can’t be all that House of the Dragon has to offer. The series needs to have the ambition to go beyond what its predecessor achieved and set a new benchmark. Moreover, trying to pluck those nostalgic strings really won’t take House of the Dragon very far with fans who came away from Game of Thrones feeling let down. Right now, I’m trying to decide whether the series is worth pursuing; whether this time a decent ending has been planned out with a roadmap to get there that keeps the entertainment value going. That’s where Game of Thrones came unstuck, so if House of the Dragon’s sales pitch is just “we’re doing Game of Thrones again!” then I’m out. I won’t make it past the first few episodes – because what’s the point?

King Viserys sits on the Iron Throne.

For now, though, I’ll stick with House of the Dragon to see what comes next after this underwhelming debut. I can forgive a degree of looking backwards in a series premiere that aims to reach out to an audience that it hopes to bring back; casual viewers who may not follow fantasy but who showed up in droves for Game of Thrones. If House of the Dragon can begin the task of differentiating itself and standing on its own two feet in the episodes ahead, that will be a greatly positive thing and something that will certainly hold my attention.

House of the Dragon will continue to face stiff competition for as long as it remains on the air. Rising to meet that competition is the task the series now faces – a task that, arguably, its predecessor didn’t have to deal with. The shadow of Game of Thrones looms large in more ways than one, and time will tell whether House of the Dragon truly has what it takes to convince audiences that the world of Westeros is deserving of a second look.

House of the Dragon is available to stream now on HBO Max in the United States. The series is broadcast on Sky Atlantic in the United Kingdom and on the NOW TV catch-up service. House of the Dragon is available internationally via a patchwork of different channels and/or streaming platforms. House of the Dragon, Game of Thrones, and other properties mentioned above are the copyright of HBO and Warner Bros.-Discovery. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

We’re halfway through 2022!

Spoiler Warning: There may be minor spoilers for some of the entries on the list below.

The end of June marks the halfway point of the year, and I think that makes it a great time to take a step back. There are a lot of entertainment experiences that lie ahead over the next few months, and with the nights already starting to get longer it’ll be autumn and then Christmas before we know it! There’s a lot coming our way before we must bid farewell to 2022, though, so today we’re going to take a look at a few of the projects on my radar.

Since the vaccine rollout peaked last year we’ve seen an easing of pandemic restrictions, including in the entertainment industry. That bodes well for at least some of the projects that have been in development! While there are still regulations and guidelines being enforced on film and TV sets, it’s much easier for many productions to work than it has been for the past couple of years. There may be disruptions to come thanks to lockdowns in China and the war in Ukraine, though… so watch this space!

I’ve broken down my choices into three categories – films, television shows, and video games – and I’ve picked six titles in each category that I’m hoping to pick up and enjoy before the sun sets on New Year’s Eve!

Film #1:
Avatar: The Way of Water

I took a look at Avatar: The Way of Water when we got a brief teaser trailer earlier in the year, but suffice to say I’m curiously interested to see what writer-director James Cameron has to offer this time around. I never felt that the original Avatar was the genre-defining epic that its creators hoped it would be, and over the course of the past decade I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the world of Avatar has largely dropped out of the cultural conversation.

The Way of Water has a lot to do, then, to reintroduce viewers to a fictional universe that many haven’t revisited since 2009 or 2010. It also has the task of expanding the world of Avatar beyond the events of the first film, showing us more about the world of Pandora, the Na’vi, and this future version of Earth and humankind. There have been some clever technical feats that have gone into the production of this sequel – including gruelling underwater motion-capture shoots – so I’ll be interested to see if it all comes together when the film releases in December.

Film #2:
Jurassic World: Dominion

Technically Jurassic World: Dominion has already been released – but as my health prevents me from doing things like taking trips to the cinema these days, I’m waiting for it to become available to stream! The teaser trailer for the film, which was released back in December, looked great, and the prospect of a reunion of the main cast members from the first film – Sam Neill as Dr Alan Grant, Laura Dern as Dr Ellie Sattler, and of course Jeff Goldblum as Dr Ian Malcolm – is a pretty significant draw.

There is always going to be the question of whether the premise of the original Jurassic Park – which was based on a novel by Michael Crichton – can really sustain a multi-film franchise. The first film was brilliant in both premise and execution, but was it a one-trick pony? I’m curious to see what director Colin Trevorrow can do to make dinosaurs both fun and intimidating once more! I’ve been trying to avoid reading reviews and spoilers for this one, and when it’s available to stream I hope to get a review written here on the website – so stay tuned for that!

Film #3:
Minions: The Rise of Gru

Despicable Me was a fun film that managed to be surprisingly heartwarming, and the franchise it spawned has gone on to become one of the biggest animated properties of all-time. The last Minions film was released back in 2015, and this sequel will reintroduce Gru – the antihero/evil villain from Despicable Me – as he teams up with his Minions for the first time.

There’s potential for a lot of fun, kid-friendly hijinks in The Rise of Gru, and I’m genuinely looking forward to another outing with the Minions. Steve Carell has been on top form in previous entries in the franchise, and the film will also feature Star Trek: Discovery’s Michelle Yeoh as part of a star-studded cast.

Film #4:
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

I had a good time with Rian Johnson’s “whodunnit” Knives Out a couple of years ago, so this follow-up definitely holds appeal. Without wanting to give away any spoilers for the first film, suffice to say that I’m excited for one character in particular to make a return!

From what I can gather, Glass Onion isn’t so much a direct sequel as it is a follow-up; a film set in the same world and that will bring back at least one familiar face, but that will also introduce an ensemble cast of new characters and perhaps a new setting as well. Hopefully what results will be just as fun and dramatic as the original!

Film #5:
Hocus Pocus 2

I missed the original Hocus Pocus when it was released in 1993, and it wasn’t until years later that I finally sat down to watch it at the insistence of a friend. What I eventually found was a fun, even somewhat clever film; a light-hearted take on Halloween that’s just right for someone who isn’t a big fan of horror!

The sequel aims to bring back Sarah Jessica Parker, Bette Midler, and Kathy Najimy as the three witches from the original for a new adventure that sounds like it will be a riff on the original concept. Keep an eye out for Star Trek: Discovery’s Doug Jones, who will also be reprising his role from the original film. Hocus Pocus 2 might be just right for Halloween 2022!

Film #6:
Beast

Could Beast be “Jaws but with a lion?” Because the marketing material released by the studio makes it sound like that! I quite like a good thriller or monster flick, so maybe Beast will be a bit of fun. I don’t have especially high expectations; it’s unlikely to be a cinematic masterpiece. But it might just be entertaining enough to waste a little time.

Idris Elba is always fun to watch regardless of what he’s doing – see last year’s The Suicide Squad as a case in point! So at least on that front there’s a solid star in the leading role, and the film’s South African setting appeals to me as I used to live there. I’m curiously interested to see what Beast will have to offer when it’s released in August.

Television Show #1:
Lego Star Wars: Summer Vacation

Lego Star Wars: Summer Vacation will be the third Lego Star Wars special released on Disney+, and the first two were fantastic! 2020’s Holiday Special was a barrel of laughs, and last year we enjoyed Terrifying Tales in October, a lightly spooky Halloween special featuring Poe Dameron. The trailer for Summer Vacation had me in stitches, so if the special itself lives up to its marketing then we’re in for a wonderful time!

Expect to see some cheeky marketing for Disney’s “Galactic Starcruiser” themed hotel (which hasn’t been doing particularly well) in a special that will star “Weird Al” Yankovic and will bring back Finn, Poe, Rey, Rose, and other Star Wars characters.

Television Show #2:
Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3

At time of writing we don’t have a confirmed premiere date for Season 3 of Lower Decks, but if it follows the same pattern as it did in 2020 and 2021 we might see it in late summer, perhaps mid-to-late August. Season 2 actually ended on a cliffhanger – which I won’t spoil – and I still have a few theories and ideas kicking around that I’ll try to get written up before the new season arrives!

Lower Decks took a couple of episodes to fully get going, but it’s been an absolute blast across its first couple of seasons. Consistently high quality has left the series with only a couple of boring or unenjoyable episodes, and there’s a surprising amount of emotion at the heart of the Lower Decks crew. It’s a Star Trek show through-and-through, and one I find myself getting surprisingly invested in. I’m hopeful for more of the same when Lower Decks returns.

Television Show #3:
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

Although The Rings of Power is already (and prematurely, in my view) proving to be controversial in some quarters, I have high hopes for what will be the most expensive television show ever produced! A return to Tolkien’s world is, of course, hugely enticing, but The Rings of Power is aiming to be a spiritual successor to Game of Thrones, telling a multi-season serialised story set in the realm of high fantasy. With a massive budget to back it up, I couldn’t be more excited about that concept!

However, with a high budget and high expectations come dangers. The Rings of Power has a long way to fall if it fails to live up to expectations, and no matter what the producers and creative team try to do, the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy will be the yardstick by which this new series is measured. I hope it can compare favourably!

Television Show #4:
House of the Dragon

Take everything I said in the entry above, copy-and-paste it, and that’s how I feel about House of the Dragon as well! This Game of Thrones prequel is one of several projects currently in production, but as far as I can see the biggest hurdle it has to surmount is not its predecessor’s reputation as one of the best television shows of all time, but the deep disappointment practically all Game of Thrones fans felt at its finale.

Just convincing people to show up for House of the Dragon in light of Game of Thrones Season 8 feels like a big ask… but if the show learns from those mistakes and makes changes, we could be in for something genuinely exciting. The first five-plus seasons of Game of Thrones were some of the most tense, atmospheric, and exciting ever brought to the small screen, so a return to Westeros – and to the writings of George R R Martin – could be fantastic. Could be.

Television Show #5:
Star Wars: Andor

A prequel to a prequel (or should that be a spin-off from a spin-off?), Andor will follow Rogue One’s Cassian Andor in the years before the events of the film. We might get to see more detail about the early days of the Rebel Alliance prior to the Battle of Scarif, which would be interesting in itself, but more than that I’m curious to see what Star Wars can do with a genuinely different premise. In this case, we’re talking about a spy thriller.

Is there room in the Star Wars galaxy for stories that aren’t just about Jedi Knights, the Force, and lightsaber duels? The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett could’ve begun to show us what the Star Wars galaxy looks like away from those familiar elements, but chose not to do so. So it falls to Andor to potentially become the first Star Wars series to really broaden the franchise’s horizons and show us what’s possible. Is that too much to hope for? Maybe… I guess we’ll have to see!

Television Show #6:
Five Days At Memorial

When done well, a miniseries can be a great format for storytelling. Five Days At Memorial aims to adapt the true story of doctors and nurses working at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Based on a book from 2013, the miniseries will take a look at some of the events that transpired – including how patients were triaged when the hospital’s systems failed and supplies ran low.

Most controversially, some patients were euthanised by doctors at the hospital – leading to a legal case against them in the months and years afterwards. Hopefully the miniseries will be faithful in its adaptation and won’t try to over-sensationalise these difficult events. I’m really curious to see how it turns out.

Video Game #1:
Star Trek: Prodigy – Supernova

You wait years for a Star Trek video game and then two come along at once! This year should see the release of Star Trek: Resurgence – a narrative adventure game – as well as Star Trek: Prodigy – Supernova, a kid-friendly adventure title based on the new animated series. With new episodes of Prodigy’s first season set to air later this year, the time is right for a tie-in.

I was disappointed (and a little concerned) that Prodigy kicked off its first season with no toys or tie-in products, but that is slowly being addressed. Supernova looks a little last-gen in terms of its graphics, and I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t, but I’m still hopeful for a fun game that ties in with the show, and one that can appeal to the younger audience that the show has been targetting.

Video Game #2:
Stray

Stray has been on my radar for a while, and it’s finally due for release in July! Getting to play as a cat is already a huge part of the appeal, but it sounds as if Stray will have a genuinely interesting mystery at its core: what happened to all of the humans in its world? Players will assume the role of a stray cat in a cyberpunk-inspired city, and solving that mystery will be top priority.

I’m really looking forward to what I hope will be a different experience with Stray. Many games do mystery, third-person exploration, and create atmospheric worlds, but Stray feels like it could offer something that I haven’t experienced before.

Video Game #3:
Grounded

If a game has been in early access for more than two years, should its “release” even count on a list like this? Regardless, I haven’t played Grounded yet – because I largely avoid early access titles – so I’m looking forward to seeing what the full release will have to offer. I loved Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, and even visited the attraction at Disney World… could Grounded let me live out a long-held childhood fantasy?

There are survival aspects to Grounded that could either work exceptionally well… or feel annoying, depending on how good the rest of the game is and how much fun I’m having! But I’ve heard good things from players who’ve enjoyed the early access version, so I’m going to give Grounded a shot when it officially releases in September.

Video Game #4:
Return to Monkey Island

Despite loving the first three games in the series, I seem to have fallen behind on my Monkey Island adventures! The fourth and fifth games in the series ended up on my “pile” of unplayed games, and despite meaning to get around to them I still haven’t! Perhaps I should rectify that before Return to Monkey Island – the sixth game in the series – arrives.

Updated versions of the first three Monkey Island games proved that point-and-click adventure titles could still find an audience when they were released a few years ago, and there’s still an appetite for this kind of comedy-adventure. I’m hopeful that Return to Monkey Island will deliver more of the same humour and excitement as the series did in its early days.

Video Game #5:
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum

After being on my radar for a while, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum has finally set a release window. All being well we’ll see the weird-sounding game in September. I honestly don’t know what to expect from this one, as Gollum would never be the kind of character I’d have expected to build a game and a story around. However, there’s clearly more to his story than we saw in the films – or even the books – so this could be an interesting adventure!

With a renewed focus on the world of Tolkien and high fantasy thanks to the Amazon show and other fantasy films and TV shows, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum could be a surprise hit. I don’t want to go overboard with the hype, but I’m definitely interested to see what the developers have come up with.

Video Game #6:
Saints Row

It does the Saints Row series a grave disservice to call it simply a “Grand Theft Auto clone,” even if that’s where it might’ve begun. This soft reboot of the series aims to take it back to its roots, setting aside at least some of the over-the-top hijinks of the third and fourth games in favour of a return to the gangland roots of the original Saints Row from 2006.

With no Grand Theft Auto VI on the horizon any time soon, Saints Row might just scratch that open-world crime itch for players who are getting tired of Grand Theft Auto V – but hopefully Saints Row can continue to carve its own niche and stand on its own two feet.

So that’s it!

Those are just some of the projects that we can look forward to in the weeks and months ahead. There are plenty more, of course, and I’m sure there’ll be some surprises along the way, too! Although 2022 has been much better than the past couple of years, there’s still the potential for disruption and delays, so keep in mind that any of the shows, films, and games listed above may not make their currently-scheduled launches. Such things happen, unfortuately!

I hope that this was a bit of fun and a glimpse at what lies ahead. It’s always interesting (to me, at least) to research different upcoming projects to see what piques my curiosity, and as someone who takes an interest in the world of entertainment I’m always keeping my ear to the ground to see what might be coming up! I hope you’ll stay tuned here on the website for reviews, impressions, and write-ups of at least some of the projects we’ve talked about today.

Until next time!

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

Halo (TV series): Season 1 review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Halo and several of the Halo video games.

Despite Paramount’s best efforts to keep the first live-action Halo series away from viewers in 95% of the world, I was recently able to binge-watch it. I really wasn’t sure what to expect going in; I knew of only a couple of the performers from their past work, and although there was supposedly a significant budget attached to the series, I can’t recall a single time that a video game has been successfully adapted in this way. And no, the “so-bad-it’s-good” Super Mario Bros. doesn’t count!

Video game adaptations have been notoriously difficult to get right, but I think Halo offers a glimpse at what’s possible. By telling a story spread across nine episodes instead of condensing it to a two-hour film, there was more depth and more time able to be spent bringing the world and the lore of the long-running series into a new format. In that sense, I think we could hold up Halo as an example of why video game adaptations may work better on the small screen – and especially in the current media environment as streaming projects – than as feature films.

The Master Chief with fellow Spartan Kai.

I’m not particularly well-versed in the depths of Halo lore. I played the first game on the original Xbox when it was new, and I’ve played most of the mainline games now thanks to Halo: The Master Chief Collection. But I haven’t played spin-offs like the Halo Wars strategy games, nor read any of the books or comics that have been produced. So as I sat down to watch Halo, I wasn’t particularly worried about things like “canon” or consistency with what’s come before – and that was probably for the best!

Halo seems to exist in its own space; a standalone project, a reinterpretation of the stories shown in the games but without the pretence of being a prequel or direct adaptation. Many of the same elements exist in the world of Halo as did in the show’s source material – the Master Chief, Dr Halsey, the UNSC, the Covenant, and so on – but they’re being reinterpreted and used in different ways.

Dr Halsey.

In order to turn the Master Chief from a faceless everyman into a relatable protagonist, that had to happen. The Master Chief in the Halo video games basically exists as an excuse to blast aliens; a television series like this needs to have a fully-rounded character with his own thoughts, motivations, and feelings to guide the plot and to get us as the audience invested in his story. This was accomplished thanks to the help of the “Keystone” – a magical macguffin that began to give the Master Chief access to memories and feelings that he hadn’t had before.

The nature of the Keystone wasn’t readily apparent, and I liked the sense of mystery that brought to the table. Only the Master Chief and his Covenant-raised counterpart Makee were able to interact with the object, and that limitation gave legs to the story. While the Master Chief wanted to learn more about his family and the life he never knew, those around him all wanted – in slightly different ways and with varying degrees of maliciousness – to use him and his connection to it for their own purposes.

The Keystone was at the centre of the season’s storylines.

This was one aspect of Halo that I felt worked well – at least, most of the time. Aside from the Master Chief and, to an extent, his fellow Spartan Kai, everyone else that we met had their own agenda, their own biases, their own prejudices, and their own moral ambiguity. On the “good” side of the conflict we have the UNSC and its leadership – but in order to get ahead, practically all of them became morally compromised along the way. There’s a message there about how the military, politics, and power work that wasn’t lost… but wasn’t exactly subtle, either.

Through the eyes of Miranda Keyes we also got to see the way the UNSC’s power structure and chain-of-command operate. Despite being intelligent and well-qualified, she found herself cut off from information that she could have used to better perform her duties; cut out of the loop not only of the conspiracy involving her parents and the Spartan programme, but also without the necessary clearances and access to information that would have made part of her job – translating the Covenant’s language – much easier.

Miranda Keyes’ story showed us the realities of working with the UNSC.

I expect that some of the show’s mysterious elements – particularly the somewhat-disconnected events of the rebellion and mysterious portal on the planet of Madrigal – may have been quite different from what some fans of the Halo games were expecting from the series. Although Halo started with a bang thanks to a truly excellent battle sequence between the Spartans and a group of Covenant elites, there were definitely moments across the show’s nine-episode run where fast-paced action and combat took a back seat to these unfolding storylines.

As I found myself getting invested in the Master Chief’s story and wanting to learn more about where he came from and what happened, I actually enjoyed this aspect of Halo… but I can understand that it may not have been what everyone expected or wanted from an adaptation like this. What I’d say in defence of Halo is that it’s worth keeping in mind that the games were designed to be interactive and to be played through; the series is designed to be watched. A game needs more combat and action to keep players invested – if the series had been nine episodes of gunfighting and running around it might’ve been truer to its source material but it would almost certainly have been far harder to watch!

Learning about the Master Chief’s family and personal history was a big part of Season 1.

Halo did some interesting things with its battle sequences in terms of cinematography. The first-person perspective that was surprisingly close to how things look in the Halo games is something rarely seen on screen in this way, and it was done much better than it had been in projects such as 2005’s Doom adaptation. Halo integrated things like the Spartans’ heads-up display into its storytelling at key moments, with things like the low shield alarm signalling that a character was in danger. It generally worked well, and as a callback to the games it was something that I appreciated.

Dipping in and out of this first-person perspective was smooth enough for the most part, but there were definitely a handful of moments across the season where combat sequences felt a little jumpy and too quick; I ended up missing things and debating whether or not I should rewind parts of several episodes as a result. I fully agree that it wouldn’t have been desirable to show every battle and combat sequence entirely in first-person, though, and the series balanced this pretty well. The first-person camera could’ve ended up feeling like a complete gimmick; it’s to Halo’s credit that that isn’t the case.

An example of the first-person camera.

I suppose one of the big questions fans will be left wrangling with is whether this approach – the slowly-building character-oriented mystery with action elements – was the right one for Halo. For me, as someone who’s enjoyed this kind of story across multiple genres and in different ways, I found it enjoyable enough. But as I said at the beginning, I’m not any kind of Halo super-fan, and I could certainly entertain the argument that there wasn’t a need to completely rework the story and parts of the lore of the franchise.

It would have been possible, even with the caveat that video games are designed to be played and a television show is designed to be watched, to adapt the story of one or more of the games. A blend of the stories of Halo: Reach leading into the events of Halo: Combat Evolved has potential as an exciting story, but one with scope for at least some of the elements of mystery and characterisation that the series ultimately included. I’m not exactly upset about “what might have been,” but at the same time, I can’t help wondering. The first game in particular, the one that established the Halo universe, the Master Chief, and many other elements that Halo used in its first season, could have been brought to screen with a few tweaks rather than telling a completely new story.

A Covenant Elite.

I was only familiar with a couple of the actors before I sat down to watch Halo – I’d seen Natascha McElhone in Designated Survivor and Burn Gorman in Turn: Washington’s Spies and The Man In The High Castle. Both were fine performers who excelled in their roles in Halo, and it was neat to see them again. Burn Gorman in particular has a menacing style that made him perfect for the role of the villainous Vincher, and his scenes were delicious to watch.

Other standout performances from the cast that I’d highlight include Yerin Ha, who took on the role of young Kwan, and Kate Kennedy, who excelled as Master Chief’s Spartan ally Kai. There was a vulnerability in the way Kennedy portrayed the otherwise-invincible Spartan warrior, and the way Kai began to follow in the footsteps of the Master Chief was an interesting – and occasionally cute – sub-plot that I hope is expanded upon in Season 2.

I enjoyed Kai’s sub-plot.

Both Captain Keyes, played by Danny Sapani, and his daughter Miranda, played by Olive Gray, were fun characters. Sapani brought the right weight or gravitas to the role of the Master Chief’s commanding officer, but as the story unfolded I didn’t really get the sense that Keyes and Master Chief knew each other all that well. There were moments of exposition… but I think seeing some of their past, even if only via a flashback, would’ve done better at building up this relationship.

Of course, all attention was on Pablo Schreiber, who took on the challenging role of this adaptation of the Master Chief. There will always be some long-time fans who have a hard time adapting to a recasting or reinterpretation of a classic character, so right off the bat I have to commend Schreiber for being willing to take on the role! Master Chief has existed for more than twenty years at this point, and this was our first real exploration of his characterisation – and our first time seeing him with his helmet off!

Pablo Schreiber with the iconic Master Chief helmet.

The mysterious elements of Master Chief’s past worked well, and seeing him gradually explore his memories and come to terms with some new feelings and emotions was interesting – but more could have been made of some of those things. Because the Master Chief quite quickly left Kwan with his ex-Spartan friend for protection, one avenue to exploring those new feelings was pretty abruptly brought to an end, and while there were interesting aspects to his relationship with Makee, there were definitely aspects of this storyline left on the table as the curtain fell on the season.

As an acting performance, though, Pablo Schreiber did the best he could with the material that he had, and I found him to be a fun and convincing protagonist for the most part. The Master Chief’s arc across Season 1 has set the stage for a story that could branch off in several different directions as both humanity and the Covenant chase these artefacts and the titular Halo ring-world… so there’s scope, when the series returns, to see more.

The Master Chief as Season 1 drew to a close.

Halo felt like a thoroughly modern serialised made-for-streaming television show. In the wake of projects like Lost and Game of Thrones, studios and entertainment corporations have been looking at their properties for anything that could be adapted into a similar, multi-season epic, and Halo feels like it’s cut from the same cloth as the returning Star Trek franchise, some of the Marvel and Star Wars projects, and shows like The Witcher over on Netflix. In that sense, there’s not a whole lot of originality in the core concept; it’s a familiar framework that has been moulded to fit this particular franchise.

By choosing to riff on the Halo concept rather than remake or directly adapt any of the stories from the games, the sense of anticipation and mystery that was clearly intended to be a big part of the series absolutely stuck the landing, and I’m still curious to learn more about the magical macguffin that was at the heart of the story. However, some storytelling decisions split up key characters perhaps too early in the story, leaving the Master Chief and UNSC characters entirely disconnected from events on Madrigal after Kwan returned there. Of course it’s possible for future seasons to reunite these story threads and connect them – it feels like it’s possible that the same mysterious faction responsible for the Keystones may have created Madrigal’s portal, for example – but as things sit right now, we definitely have a series in two halves.

The main cast of Halo Season 1.

All that being said, Halo got off to a good start and I’m curious to see what will come next. Rumours of a shake-up over at 343 Industries/Paramount may mean that a new showrunner and producers are being brought in for Season 2, which will begin filming imminently at time of writing, so we may see a shift in the way the series is written and structured to take on board feedback from fans and critics from this first outing.

I give credit to Halo for ambitiously trying to bring a long-running franchise into a completely different environment. Adapting video games has never been easy and has rarely been successful, so make no mistake: this was a risk. For my money, it’s a risk that largely paid off, and what resulted was a decent season of television that has set the stage for more adventures in this surprisingly deep fictional universe. Were there elements both narrative and technical that were imperfect? Sure, but that doesn’t ruin what was a decently engaging drama. The mysteries kept me engaged, the performances from both leading and secondary actors were great, and moments of action, while perhaps spread a little thin, made sure that Halo didn’t forget its roots.

Halo Season 1 is available to stream now on Paramount+ in regions where the service is available. The Halo franchise – including the Halo television series – is the copyright of 343 Industries and Microsoft. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The pros and cons of filming back-to-back

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard Season 1.

After a short pandemic-enforced break, Star Trek: Picard Season 3 resumed filming a few days ago. Production on the show’s third season has been underway for a while, and was officially announced back in September during the franchise’s Star Trek Day digital event. The interesting thing about Picard Season 3 being so far along in its production is, of course, that Season 2 has yet to be broadcast. This got me thinking about some of the benefits and potential pitfalls of filming back-to-back in this fashion, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

There are some great examples of productions that were filmed back-to-back. The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films has to be one of the best examples of this: all three films were shot together in New Zealand, though post-production work and editing continued after the first and second films had premiered. The Lord of the Rings is held in very high esteem even twenty years after it premiered, and is rightly credited with bringing the high fantasy genre to mainstream audiences, paving the way for titles like Game of Thrones.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy was hugely successful in the high fantasy genre.

Being shot back-to-back worked well for The Lord of the Rings then, clearly! The Return of the King – the third and final part of the trilogy – swept the board at the Academy Awards in 2004, picking up a record-equalling eleven Oscars.

In the case of The Lord of the Rings, the practicalities of production meant that shooting all three films together made sense. New Line Cinema had greenlit the entire trilogy and was expecting it to be a success, and the difficulties of setting up production in New Zealand – as well as having the actors travel there – all came together to make filming the entire project at once a practical and sensible approach to production. From the earliest days of pre-production, New Line Cinema intended to do things this way.

Whether in cinema or on television, there are advantages to filming back-to-back. There’s far less of a chance that characters will look noticeably different from one part of the story to the next, for example, as everything from costuming to makeup and even haircuts or simply ageing will not be factors that impact production. Keeping the same behind-the-camera crew will also allow for a consistent production that keeps the same cinematographic style. It makes it easier to go back and re-work parts of the story, if necessary – for example, if a writer or director felt the need to add a scene foreshadowing the ending, or even to change the entire end of the story to better fit what had come before.

There are advantages to back-to-back production.

But there can be drawbacks to this approach, pitfalls that can be very difficult to avoid even with good preparation and the best of intentions. And there’s one reason in particular why Star Trek: Picard kicked off this discussion for me.

Star Trek: Picard started with an episode that’s probably the best series premiere in the history of the franchise, surpassing even Deep Space Nine’s Emissary – the previous high-water mark. Over the course of the next few episodes, its story unfolded slowly and seemed to be building up to an exciting climax. Unfortunately, though, the season stumbled as it approached the finish line, with the first half of its two-part finale in particular being a real disappointment. The way the season eventually ended left several storylines unresolved and at least one gaping plot hole. To be blunt, the finale was weak – and it’s important that the writers and producers receive that feedback and take it on board.

I’m not the only person to have criticised the way that Star Trek: Picard Season 1 ended; the two parts of the season finale are the worst-rated episodes of the show according to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

The Season 1 finale of Star Trek: Picard was by far the weakest part of the story.

So what’s the point of bringing this up? Well, it’s simple: filming back-to-back, as is now happening with Seasons 2 and 3 of Picard, means that the show’s writers and producers will have far less of a margin for error; they’re much more constrained and less able to make changes based on critiques and audience reactions.

Set aside any thoughts you might have about “artistic integrity” or the “vision” of a production’s writers, producers, and directors. In the real world, with very few exceptions films and television shows are adapted – and in some cases changed entirely – based on the way audiences respond to them. This is why practically every film and television series is shown to test audiences before they premiere. Doing so can give production companies the chance to make last-minute adjustments, make cuts, or even rework entire sequences.

ViacomCBS will not have ignored the reviews and discussion surrounding Picard Season 1 and its finale. Those criticisms will have been absorbed by the corporation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they mandated changes to the story of Season 2 as a result, even if such changes may be relatively minor. Just to pick on one example, the story of main character Narek, which was dropped without a resolution part-way through the finale, might be something that the team in charge of the show insist that Season 2 clarifies.

Narek’s story was just one of several major elements that the season finale failed to pay off.

But if there are issues with Season 2 – whether they’re to do with story, art style, visual effects, etc. – it will be much harder, and much more expensive, to make any changes to Season 3. In all likelihood, Season 3 will wrap up its main phase of production before Season 2 even premieres, and while post-production work and pick-up shoots offer some opportunities to make changes, those opportunities are limited. If a film or series has been ready to go for a year or more, going back to film extra scenes can be tricky; it can be very easy to tell which scenes and shots were filmed and added in later, even in productions with high budgets.

In short, because Picard Season 1 had some very particular and noteworthy issues with its finale, I’m at least a little concerned about the direction of the series heading into Seasons 2 and 3, and the fact that the seasons are being shot back-to-back heightens that. Had Season 1 ended with a stronger finale, perhaps I’d be less concerned. But unfortunately it didn’t – and that leaves the show in a strange place for me. I’m genuinely excited to spend more time with Admiral Picard and the crew of La Sirena, but I’m at least a little anxious about the way the show’s production is being handled.

Where will the admiral and his crew go next?

In a way, this is something we may have to get used to as the pandemic rumbles on. Had it not been for covid and its associated lockdowns in California, it would’ve been possible for production on Picard Season 2 to get underway far sooner, potentially meaning that there’d have been no need to film the second and third seasons back-to-back. But the pandemic continues to be a disruptive force across the world, so productions may have to get used to working when they can and taking breaks when they must – at least in the short-to-medium term.

In some cases it won’t matter. In others, filming back-to-back can provide significant advantages. But there are potential drawbacks to this way of approaching a major production, not least the difficulty in going back and making changes based on audience and critical feedback. It’s the latter point that concerns me when it comes to Star Trek: Picard, and that’s due to the weak ending to an otherwise excellent first season. Perhaps in the days ahead we should go back to the two parts of Et in Arcadia Ego and re-examine what went wrong – as well as looking at what the season finale got right. If I forget, remind me! For now, you can check out the reviews of both episodes on my dedicated Star Trek: Picard page.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the copyright of New Line Cinema and/or Warner Bros. The Star Trek franchise – including Star Trek: Picard – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

We can abolish the TV license – but only if the government stops whining about “bias”

For the first time in a long time – possibly for the first time ever – the UK has a government willing to consider something that had previously been unthinkable: abolishing the hated and outdated television license. Their reasons for bringing up the issue at this precise moment may be questionable, but the policy itself is not. Since the turn of the millennium at least, support for abolishing this hated, regressive tax has only grown, and it’s now one of the most consistently popular policy positions in the entire country.

I’m not a political ideologue. I’m not wedded to one political party nor to a specific ideology, and I’ve voted for practically all of the UK’s major political parties at one time or another over the years. Though I seldom find myself on the same side of the argument as the likes of Nadine Dorries (the current Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, within whose brief the BBC and the license fee fall) I’m happy to see that, finally, a British government is bold enough to swing the proverbial axe and finally bring an end to this utterly outdated method of funding a television broadcaster.

Official portrait of Nadine Dorries, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

But the government is going about this in quite literally the worst way possible, putting forward their least convincing and most polarising argument. This is a cause for concern, because if the ineptitude of people like Nadine Dorries creates an increase in support for the BBC and the television license, the best chance we’ve ever had to abolish the damn thing will be lost. The government, through nothing short of abject stupidity, will have blown the country’s best chance to bring an end to an expensive anachronism, one which isn’t fit for purpose any more. And that would be a travesty.

Before we go any further, a quick reminder on what the television license actually is and how it works. Anyone who watches television in the UK – including some live broadcasts streamed online – is required by law to purchase a television license. The money collected by this tax – and it is a tax, no matter what some may claim – funds the British Broadcasting Corporation, more commonly known as the BBC. The BBC uses this money to pay its way, producing television programmes like Strictly Come Dancing, Doctor Who, Match of the Day, and many more. Failure to pay the television license, even on legitimate grounds, leads to harassment from the BBC’s scarily-named “enforcement division,” who try to act like bailiffs and will even show up at your house to harass you in person. Even if someone never watches any BBC programmes – which, in the days of 500+ satellite and cable television channels is increasingly likely – they’re still forced to pay the tax.

An example of a threatening letter from the TV Licensing organisation.

The television license is, unlike income tax, a regressive tax. Because the fee is the same for everyone, regardless of income or ability to pay, it impacts poor people and those on low or fixed incomes hardest, and while it isn’t the only tax in the UK that behaves this way, it’s by far the most egregious. At the current rate of Β£159 per year – $217 USD at time of writing – it’s borderline unaffordable for low-income households, especially with a growing cost of living crisis sending food prices, energy bills, and the cost of practically everything else skyrocketing.

This isn’t the first time I’ve brought up the television license here on the website. Almost two years ago I first laid out my argument against this regressive tax, and before we press ahead I think we should recap why I feel the TV tax needs to be scrapped. Firstly, and most importantly, the television license is simply out-of-date. There may have been a justification for this method of funding in the 1960s, but no such justification exists in the 2020s. The world of entertainment has simply moved on, with not only a veritable smorgasbord of television channels to choose from – over 100 of which are free-to-air for anyone with a television set – but also a growing number of subscription services like Netflix and Disney+, with others such as Paramount+ coming soon as well. Not to mention the internet itself and platforms like YouTube. The idea of insisting that every household pay a tax to fund one single television broadcaster is just plain outdated, especially considering that fewer and fewer people watch or engage with the BBC at all. Those days have come and gone.

There hasn’t been a justification for the television license since TVs looked like this.

Next, we have the nature of the tax itself. As mentioned, this is a regressive tax, one which hits poor and low-income folks hardest. As someone on a fixed income myself, I can attest to this. Β£159 may not sound like much to some people, but for many folks, that could be several months’ worth of disposable income. As inflation rises and prices for everything creep up, the license fee becomes increasingly unaffordable, especially as it’s pegged to rise in line with the government’s official measure of inflation.

Finally, let’s consider what the tax actually pays for: entertainment. The BBC runs a news operation too, and pays a lot of money to bureaucrats and managers in an inefficient fashion, but the bulk of the money raised goes on programmes like Strictly Come Dancing, Line of Duty, EastEnders, Doctor Who, Top Gear, Match of the Day… and the list goes on. What do all of these programmes have in common? They’re commercially viable – meaning that they could be produced by any other commercial broadcaster.

Taxpayers’ money is being used to produce soap operas, reality television, and many other mediocre entertainment products.

Take The Great British Bake Off as a case in point. The BBC used to pay for the show, but when they were outbid by Channel 4, the series retained its popularity and its audience on a different channel. It is simply not acceptable in 2022 that tax money, raised from millions of people who can’t afford to pay the inflated rates, is being used to fund mediocre entertainment programmes that can easily be made by other commercial channels and broadcasters.

This is the winning argument. When it’s explained to people in this way – that the television tax is inflated, unfair, and regressive – abolishing it is not just popular, it’s the only argument that makes any sense, and there really can’t be any counter-argument that isn’t just obfuscation or that tries to shift the goalposts. By sticking to arguments about the inherent unfairness of the tax and the fact that it’s utterly outdated in a modern media landscape, the government – and campaigners like me – will win.

Logo of the TV Licensing organisation.

But this isn’t the way that the current government is trying to go. By talking about “bias” within the BBC they come across as whining – and worse, they come across as trying to punish the organisation for not giving them kinder, more fawning coverage. It’s Trumpian in the extreme, with echoes of Trump’s famous “fake news” attack, which he levied at any journalist or broadcaster who dared question him or call him out.

By using the “bias” argument, the government is going to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, further polarise the political discourse in the UK, and fail in its stated goal of reforming the way in which the BBC is funded. The current government is sufficiently unpopular right now that any organisation that they criticise is going to receive a boost in support and popularity. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” – so goes the old adage, and so it will prove to be for many people in this country who would, all else being equal, remain opposed to the television license. But when they see the BBC under attack by an aggressive government, particularly as they seem to be launching this attack at this time to distract from other scandals, they’re far more inclined to support the BBC, and by extension the television license.

There’s a very real sense that the current government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson is using the TV tax issue to dodge or distract from scandals and other problems.

Abolishing the television license does not mean abolishing the BBC. The BBC has enough time between now and the end of its current charter in 2027 to find and implement a new funding method. Many folks have suggested a subscription model, with the BBC adopting an approach similar to the likes of Sky or Virgin Media. Others have suggested that the BBC could simply do what every other television channel does and run advertisements. It could even go online, offering a platform comparable to the likes of Netflix. In short, there are options for the BBC to continue to exist and continue to produce its content.

Popular brands and shows could also be auctioned off, and as programmes like The Great British Bake Off have already demonstrated, there are many broadcasters who’d happily snap up the most popular ones. They’d remain viable on other networks – and many would probably do even better on commercial channels or online.

The Great British Bake Off was bought by rival broadcaster Channel 4 a few years ago.

But again, the government’s ham-fisted, idiotic approach to this issue is going to wreck it. If they genuinely want to abolish the television license, they’re already messing it up by putting their worst argument front-and-centre. Claims of “bias” may resonate with some right-wingers, but that’s offputting to practically everyone else in the country. Instead of making this a unifying issue, one which could actually score the government some much-needed kudos, they’re instead managing to drive up support for the BBC and its outdated method of funding, and turning what should be an easy win into a disappointing defeat.

I firmly believe that the abolition of the TV license is only a matter of time. But it would be such a shame if the current government squanders this opportunity through sheer force of incompetence, allowing the vestigial tax to remain in place for years or even a decade longer than necessary. By deliberately turning the TV license into a political issue, Nadine Dorries and her ilk have polarised the debate, lost potential friends and allies, and weakened their own hand. Abolishing the TV license should be a progressive issue – it’s a regressive tax that disproportionately impacts low-income households. But by making it such a polarising political issue in a political climate that is already so deeply divided, the current government is actively pushing away people who should be natural allies in this fight.

My message to them is simple: focus on a winning, unifying argument, and stop whining about “bias.”

In the UK, it is required by law (at time of writing) to purchase a television license in order to watch live TV. This article should not be interpreted as encouraging anyone to fail to purchase a license if a license is required. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Looking ahead to 2022

Happy New Year! As we mark the first day of 2022 (and recover from the last night of 2021) I thought it could be fun to look ahead to some of the entertainment experiences that lie before us this year. There are a plethora of films, games, and television shows on the horizon, and there are sure to be plenty of surprises and new announcements to come as well. On this occasion I’ve picked out ten films, video games, and television shows that I’m personally looking forward to in 2022.

The ongoing pandemic has caused a number of delays, and while most of these titles feel like a safe bet, it’s still possible that additional disruption will mean that we won’t see them all before the end of the year. The further out we get, the more likely such changes are – so titles which are currently aiming for a November or December release could end up slipping back to 2023.

Let’s jump into the list!

Film #1:
Morbius

Up first we have somewhat of a rarity: a Marvel film that I’m actually slightly interested in! Morbius will star Jared Leto as a mad scientist who inadvertently turns himself into a vampire. The film isn’t actually part of the main Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it’s being produced by Colombia and Sony – the latter company having the license to Spider-Man.

From my point of view, the fact that the film isn’t part of the MCU is no bad thing. Keeping up with every Marvel project increasingly feels like a full-time job considering the shared nature of the universe and the frequency of crossovers. So perhaps Morbius will be able to be enjoyed as more or less a standalone piece. I know nothing about the character or comic book source material – but I’m hoping it’ll be a fun, action-packed, slightly spooky adventure.

Film #2:
Lightyear

I was surprised by the trailer for Lightyear – the film looks so much more fun and interesting than its premise alone would have suggested! An “origin story” for Buzz Lightyear, the film purports to show us why Buzz Lightyear figures were so popular in the world of Toy Story! I noted many different visual and thematic elements from mid-century, retro sci-fi; kind of similar to the theme of the Tomorrowland park at Disneyland.

Chris Evans is set to take on the title role, and I’m genuinely looking forward to Lightyear. The film seems to have an element of mystery to it, and from the trailer it looks set to be an exciting adventure with a fun visual style. Check out my full thoughts on the trailer by clicking or tapping here.

Film #3:
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Nicolas Cage is going to play an exaggerated, fictionalised version of himself in a film that looks set to be hilarious – and full of meme potential! I honestly thought this was a joke when I first heard about it, but the trailer already had me laughing out loud. Cage has developed a self-awareness, leaning into his reputation for making B-movies, and I think the result can only be hilarity.

In short, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is either going to be great… or it’s going to be one of those “so bad it’s good” films. There’s simply no in-between! Oh, and The Mandalorian star Pedro Pascal is also in it alongside Cage.

Film #4:
Moonfall

Disaster films are somewhat of a guilty pleasure of mine. They’re usually so far-fetched and over-the-top, but they can also be dramatic and exciting; perfect popcorn fare and a fun way to kill a couple of hours. Roland Emmerich has directed some fun ones: 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow spring to mind first and foremost. So I’m very curious to see what his latest sci-fi/disaster flick will be all about!

The premise sounds bonkers: the moon gets knocked out of orbit and is on a collision course with Earth. The film promises that the moon “is not what we think it is” … so let’s find out what the moon really is, I guess!

Film #5:
Avatar 2

The first of four planned sequels to 2009’s Avatar is scheduled for release in December this year. After more than thirteen years, James Cameron has quite a task on his hands to get people re-engaged with the fictional universe that he created, but if anyone can pull it off it’s him. Despite being an enjoyable film in its own right, Avatar never quite succeeded to the extent Cameron (and 20th Century Fox) hoped, failing to really break into the top tier of sci-fi franchises.

Avatar 2 is the first of four opportunities to change the narrative. There’s always room, in my opinion, for new sci-fi, and Avatar had some successes with its world-building. There are open questions left over from the first film – and although I’m by no means an Avatar superfan, I’m curious to see where the story will go next.

Film #6:
Untitled Super Mario Movie

The Super Mario Bros. film that was a shock announcement at a recent Nintendo Direct broadcast still doesn’t have an official title, but it’s targetting a release around the holiday season (I know we’re still processing Christmas 2021, but still!) Featuring an all-star cast including Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Jack Black as Bowser, this has the potential to succeed where the 1993 version… didn’t.

Nintendo seems to have invested a decent amount of money into the project, and with a story and animation style that will hopefully be closer to the video game series than the 1993 attempt, this could be the unexpected hit of Christmas 2022!

Film #7:
Uncharted

The adaptation of the Uncharted video game series will star Spider-Man’s Tom Holland as adventurer (and discount Indiana Jones) Nathan Drake – and if you’ve been a regular around here for a while, you might recall that it made my list of films to watch in 2021 last January! But after being delayed, Uncharted looks all but certain to get a release this year (one way or another).

I had fun with the Uncharted video games on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. I’m cautiously interested to see how well the adaptation will work – condensing the story of even one video game into the runtime of a single film can be tricky. But I think there’s the potential for a solid action flick if all goes according to plan.

Film #8:
Jurassic World: Dominion

The legacy of Jurassic Park continues with the third entry in the reboot Jurassic World series, with Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard reprising their roles. Details of the plot are sparse at this stage, with director Colin Trevorrow keeping a lid on things, but if the story picks up in the aftermath of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom then we can expect to see dinosaurs roaming free – and not just in their island park!

A lot of fans are excited for the return of the original trio of characters: Sam Neill as Dr Alan Grant, Laura Dern as Ellie Sattler, and Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcolm will all be making appearances in the film. An extended trailer (called the prologue) was recently released, and it’s well worth a watch!

Film #9:
Everything Everywhere All At Once

Michelle Yeoh (Star Trek: Discovery’s Philippa Georgiou) stars in this very weird-looking film about a woman who can cross over to infinite parallel universes. Evelyn seems to be tasked with saving the entire multiverse from an unknown threat, travelling to different realities and exploring different versions of herself and her own life.

The trailer was chaotic, and the plot may be tricky to follow, but Everything Everywhere All At Once looks like a wild, bonkers ride. It could be a ton of fun, so it’s one I shall watch with interest!

Film #10:
Sonic the Hedgehog 2

2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog exceeded my (admittedly rather low) expectations, and in a pandemic-disrupted year was actually one of the few cinematic highlights. Following its success will be no easy task for this sequel, but there’s definitely potential in this return to the universe of Sega’s cute mascot.

The stars of the first film (including Jim Carrey) will be returning, and the addition of other characters from the Sonic franchise looks set to expand the fun.

Video Game #1:
Six Days In Fallujah

Six Days In Fallujah is a controversial game. It intends to depict, in as realistic a manner as modern games engines will allow, the Second Battle of Fallujah, which took place in 2004. I was surprised to see the extent of the backlash that the game’s announcement received last year, not just from the expected sources like right-wing politicians, but from some games commentators and gaming outlets too.

In short, I think that it’s important to create art, particularly when the subject matter it tackles is difficult or controversial. It’s possible that Six Days In Fallujah will add nothing to the conversation around the Iraq War, but it’s equally possible that we’ll get something more than just mindless shooting. Video games can be art, and art can and should tackle difficult and complex topics. To see my full thoughts on Six Days In Fallujah, click or tap here.

Video Game #2:
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora was a surprise announcement at last year’s E3, but with the Avatar sequels kicking off this year it makes a lot of sense to have a video game tie-in of some kind as well. Frontiers of Pandora doesn’t seem like it will be a direct adaptation of either the first or second films in the series, but rather a standalone title.

The world of Avatar seems well-suited to a video game adaptation, and with Ubisoft’s resources at its back there’s potential in this title. Taking on the role of a Na’vi warrior sounds like fun, and I’m definitely going to check out Frontiers of Pandora when it’s ready.

Video Game #3:
Mario Kart 9

At this stage there’s been no announcement of a new game in the long-running Mario Kart series. But Mario Kart 8 was released almost eight years ago, and with 2022 being the series’ 30th anniversary, the timing feels right for a new game. Nintendo loves to celebrate anniversaries with big releases, after all!

Mario Kart 8 has been one of the Switch’s big sellers since the console’s launch. But the game has a limited roster of tracks and playable characters, and after such a long wait in between titles, a growing number of players are looking for something new. 2022 would be a great time to launch Mario Kart 9 – so watch this space.

Video Game #4:
Stray

Stray is a game that lets you play as a cat. Do I need to say more? Publisher Annapurna Interactive has a great track record, having released wonderful and emotional narrative journeys like What Remains of Edith Finch and Gone Home. Indie developer Blue Twelve Studio has been working on the game for a while, and its unique premise and beautiful setting have already piqued my interest!

The game entices players to unravel an ancient mystery and figure a way to escape a decaying cyberpunk city populated by robots. The stray cat at the centre of the game will have their own robot companion, too. This game looks adorable – but it also has an unsettling, otherworldly feel that could make for a fascinating and unique adventure.

Video Game #5:
Star Trek: Resurgence

I’d been desperately hoping for a new single-player Star Trek game for years; it’s been almost a decade since the last one failed miserably. With Star Trek being back on our screens in a big way, I’m glad that ViacomCBS is finally licensing video games again. Resurgence is the single-player story-driven game I’d been hoping for – and the trailer looked great!

New developer Dramatic Labs has pedigree – many of its employees used to work for Telltale Games, whose narrative adventures were highly-praised. Telltale worked on a number of adaptations, including Batman and Game of Thrones, so Dramatic Labs seems perfectly positioned to bring a brand new Star Trek game to life. I’m really rooting for Resurgence to be a success.

Video Game #6:
Starfield

Starfield has been in development for almost a decade. Bethesda had ideas for space-themed games going all the way back to the 1990s, and even pitched a Star Trek game at one point, so in a sense Starfield has been a very long time coming! At 2021’s E3, the company was finally able to announce a release date, and while details about the game are still sparse, we have begun to learn a little more about some of the factions and locales.

Bethesda chief Todd Howard has literally promised players “Skyrim in space,” so Starfield has big shoes to fill! After Bethesda has stumbled in recent years with the likes of Fallout 76, the game also has a lot of work to do to rehabilitate the company’s image. Anything less than an exceptional game could leave the Microsoft-owned studio in trouble. I want to be excited for Starfield… but I’m trying to avoid boarding the hype train.

Video Game #7:
Saints Row

I initially wrote off the Saints Row games as being “Grand Theft Auto knock-offs,” but the truth is that they’re so much more than that. The setup is unquestionably similar – players take on the role of a criminal in an open-world city – but developers Volition brought a distinctly comedic style that made the original Saints Row and its sequels stand out.

Saints Row is a reboot, one which will supposedly bring the game back to its roots. Given that Rockstar seemingly still has no plans to release Grand Theft Auto 6 any time soon, Saints Row could be the game that scratches that open-world itch.

Video Game #8:
Test Drive Unlimited: Solar Crown

It’s been almost a decade since the last Test Drive game was released, so Solar Crown is coming late to the party! But following on from the success of other open-world racing games (like Forza Horizon 5, for example) it could be well-placed to take the racing crown this year.

Solar Crown is set in Hong Kong, and developers KT Racing have promised a 1:1 full-scale recreation of the entirety of Hong Kong island. That sounds incredibly ambitious, but I’m hopeful that they can pull it off. The result could be one of the best racing games in a long time.

Video Game #9:
Pharaoh: A New Era

I adored Pharaoh in the early 2000s. An Ancient Egyptian-themed city building game, it had all of the micromanagement you’d expect from a game of that type, but with additional features derived from its setting. For example, the Nile river could flood – so making use of flood plains became an essential gameplay element.

Pharaoh: A New Era aims to bring the game into the modern day, updating its graphical fidelity but retaining the original game’s trademark visual style and gameplay. I think it has a lot of potential to be a wonderful nostalgia trip for me – and if you missed the original twenty years ago, it could be brand-new fun for you!

Video Game #10:
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order II

At this stage we don’t know whether Jedi: Fallen Order II is even in development – though it’s heavily rumoured to be well underway. It’s a possibility for 2022, though, so I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed waiting for an official announcement. After the disappointment of Battlefront II and The Rise of Skywalker, Jedi: Fallen Order did a lot for the Star Wars franchise. It was an engaging story with some great characters – most of whom should be returning.

I’m really interested to see where Cal Kestis and his friends will go next. What adventures lie in store for them? And will we find out their ultimate fate – perhaps explaining why Cal and the others played no part in the Rebellion or the events of the Star Wars films? So many questions… but I’ll settle for another fun Star Wars adventure, even if it doesn’t answer all of them!

TV Series #1:
House of the Dragon

Despite being underwhelmed by the first trailer (and bitterly disappointed by the final season of Game of Thrones) I’m nevertheless curious to see what House of the Dragon will bring to the table. The new series has the not insignificant challenge of proving that Game of Thrones wasn’t a one-hit wonder, and that Westeros truly can be expanded into an ongoing franchise.

Honestly? The jury is still out. The television landscape has changed immeasurably since Game of Thrones’ 2010 debut, and in the big-budget high fantasy genre, House of the Dragon will face some serious competition. There’s potential in the series… but right now, I can muster curious interest rather than outright excitement.

TV Series #2:
Star Trek: Picard Season 2

After a longer-than-planned pandemic-enforced break, Picard will finally be back on our screens before too long. It isn’t clear yet whether Discovery’s unexpected mid-season break will delay Picard Season 2 from its planned February premiere, but that seems likely. Regardless, time travel and old adversaries are on the agenda for Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of La Sirena.

I confess that time travel stories aren’t always my favourites in Star Trek, so I’m perhaps less excited for Picard Season 2 than I hoped I might be. But a chance to spend more time with Picard himself, especially after the wonderfully complex presentation of the character in Season 1, is something that I’m truly looking forward to.

TV Series #3:
Star Wars: Obi-Wan Kenobi

There’s a lot of Star Wars content to come this year! Obi-Wan Kenobi is taking place in between the prequel and original trilogies, and will see Ewan McGregor reprise his role as the famed ex-Jedi. What adventures will he be able to have during his exile on the planet of Tatooine? And will those adventures feel natural or tacked-on? I guess we’re about to find out!

McGregor’s portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi was definitely one of the better elements of the prequel films. I’m not sure I’d have chosen to make this series if I were making the big decisions for Disney and Lucasfilm, but I hope to get a fun action or drama series that respects the boundaries of the original 1977 film and doesn’t tread on its toes.

TV Series #4:
Amazon’s Lord of the Rings

This series made my list last year, as I had originally expected to see it in 2021. Amazon has found some success with its adaptation of The Wheel of Time, but in a sense that show feels like an appetiser before the main course! Few other properties have such potential to bring in audiences as Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and there’s going to be a huge amount of interest in what is going to be the most expensive television series ever made.

With so little information about the characters or plot, it’s hard to know what to expect. The series isn’t going to be a new adaptation of any of the familiar books, instead drawing on a period in Middle-earth’s Second Age, millennia before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Amazon appears to be greatly influenced by Game of Thrones in the way the show’s casting and production have been handled; hopefully that’s a good thing!

TV Series #5:
Star Wars: Andor

A prequel to a prequel, Andor will focus on the character of Cassian Andor who was first introduced in 2016’s Rogue One. A Star Wars story that steps away from the Jedi and the Force is something I’ve been hoping the franchise would do more of for some time, and I feel that Andor could be a good vehicle to show us more about the Star Wars galaxy away from space magic.

The series may also show us a bit more about the early days of the Rebel Alliance, something we glimpsed in Rogue One. As a standalone piece it could be an interesting and dramatic spy thriller – and I’m hopeful that it’ll be entertaining at the very least.

TV Series #6:
Foundation Season 2

Season 1 of Foundation may not have been perfect, but it broadly succeeded at adapting a fairly dense work of sci-fi, bringing it to the small screen in an understandable way. Jared Harris put in a wonderful performance, and this complex story with some pretty deep themes ended up as a thoroughly enjoyable season of television.

We already knew that Apple TV+ had greenlit a second season of the show, and production has already begun. If Foundation can do more of the same, it’ll be a fine addition to this year’s television lineup.

TV Series #7:
The Last Of Us

The Last Of Us is one of the finest video game stories I’ve ever played through. It’s a vivid, dramatic, and occasionally harrowing story of a road trip across a hauntingly beautiful post-apocalyptic United States. Its central conceit of mushroom zombies may sound silly, but the cordyceps infection serves as the backdrop to set up an amazing character-focused story. And now it’s being adapted for television.

A TV show will suit the long and complex narrative far better than a film ever could, so in that sense I think the right decision has been made. I don’t know whether the story will be broken down into seasons or whether The Last Of Us will try to tell the entire story of the game this year – I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

TV Series #8:
Tokyo Vice

I’ve been greatly looking forward to this adaptation of a true story. Journalist Jake Adelstein spent part of his career in Japan working on crime stories in Tokyo, and his book told the true story of working for a large Japanese newspaper and the various cases and investigations he was part of.

HBO has a great track record when it comes to these short-format miniseries, and I think that Tokyo Vice has the potential to be 2022’s answer to the likes of Chernobyl – a true story adapted in a dramatic and exciting way.

TV Series #9:
The Wheel of Time Season 2

Amazon’s second high fantasy series on this list already has a full season under its belt. I enjoyed The Wheel of Time’s debut season, even though the story was quite cluttered and may have been hard to follow for some viewers. With more than a dozen books in the series left to adapt, Season 2 has its work cut out to keep up the pace.

The Wheel of Time had some great moments of characterisation and some well-crafted visual effects. Combined with a strong story I feel that the series is off to a good start – even if not every critic agrees. With Amazon’s own Lord of the Rings adaptation coming this year, Season 2 will be drawing comparisons to that show whether it wants to or not. Time to step up!

TV Series #10:
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

More than three years after Ethan Peck and Anson Mount won the hearts of Star Trek fans during Discovery’s second season, the highly-requested “Captain Pike show” is finally going to be broadcast! Strange New Worlds has promised Trekkies a return to a more episodic format, and the show could be the one to finally hook in the remaining holdouts who have been unimpressed with the franchise’s recent output.

This isn’t a ranked list, but Strange New Worlds is probably the show I’m most looking forward to this year – assuming it will be available to watch here in the UK. ViacomCBS doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to making its shows available outside of North America! But if that hurdle can be surmounted, I have high hopes indeed for Strange New Worlds.

So that’s it!

As we look ahead to some of the entertainment experiences of 2022, there’s a lot to be hopeful for. As a Trekkie, 2022 is arguably one of the biggest and most important years for the franchise in a very long time. Not only are there new and ongoing shows, but a brand-new video game and an increase in merchandise too. All of these things will hopefully cement Star Trek as ViacomCBS’ main franchise, securing its future in the longer term. I’ll be doing my best to support Star Trek this year – as long as ViacomCBS does its part too.

I hope you had an enjoyable New Year’s Eve! Now that the holiday season is more or less over, things can start to settle down and get back to normal. I adore the Christmas season, but it’s also nice to be able to unwind after what can be a stressful time of year.

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

End-of-Year Awards 2021

Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers may be present for some of the entries on this list.

It’s the end of 2021, so it’s time to look back on a few of the entertainment highs (and lows) of the year! Like I did last year, I’ve picked out a few of my favourite entertainment experiences from the worlds of cinema, gaming, and television, and I’ll be giving each a totally official Trekking with Dennis award!

Most categories have a winner and a runner-up; some just have one title and in those cases they’re the winners by default. I’ve put Star Trek episodes into their own category, otherwise I’d just be saying that every TV show that I liked this year was Star Trek!

Caveat time! Obviously I haven’t watched or played anywhere close to everything that was published or released this year! The exclusion from these awards of titles such as The Last Duel or For All Mankind doesn’t mean they aren’t good; I just have no experience with them so I can’t comment. It goes without saying that everything here is entirely subjective! This is just one person’s opinion – so feel free to disagree vehemently with some or all of my choices!

With that out of the way, let’s get started!

Best Documentary:

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
Half-Life Histories series; Kyle Hill

There have been some interesting documentaries this year, but I wanted to highlight a semi-professional series that has been quietly ticking up views on YouTube. Kyle Hill has crafted a series of absolutely fascinating documentaries about nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and nuclear accidents – some of which were familiar to me, but several of which actually weren’t.

Nuclear weapons are an incredibly controversial topic, of course, but nuclear power is something I firmly believe that we as a species need to embrace. At least in the short-to-medium term, nuclear power offers a reliable way for humanity to meet our growing power needs while phasing out fossil fuels.

Kyle Hill’s documentaries show how early nuclear experiments could and did go wrong, but they aren’t alarmist. Hill has a gentle, almost understated style that tells these serious (and occasionally fatal) stories with due dignity and gravitas, but without sensationalising the events in question. For anyone interested in the likes of the Chernobyl disaster or the early history of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, the entire series is well worth a watch.

Best Web Series:

πŸ₯ˆ Runner-Up πŸ₯ˆ
The Jimquisition; Jim Sterling

I’d like to highlight a fellow non-binary creator here. Jim Sterling – also known as James Stephanie Sterling – is a video games critic on YouTube. Their main weekly series, The Jimquisition, often highlights bad practices in the games industry and draws attention to misbehaving corporations. The Jimquisition was one of the first shows to criticise the practice of lootboxes a few years ago, for example, and this year Sterling has worked relentlessly to call out the likes of Ubisoft and Activision Blizzard.

Too many publications – even blogs and social media channels – now work hand-in-glove with big corporations in the video games industry, leading many so-called independent publications to, at the very least, be cautious in what they say about both their corporate friends and the games they review so as to maintain their level of access. The Jimquisition has always been different because it’s self-funded, leaving Sterling free to criticise as they see fit.

On a personal note, seeing Jim Sterling come out as non-binary was one factor among many as I made my own decision earlier this year to discuss my gender identity in public for the first time, and I want to thank them for their brave decision.

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
Tasting History with Max Miller

There really isn’t anything quite like Tasting History. There are a plethora of cooking shows and channels online – many of which are fantastic! And there are some great history shows as well, everything from mini-documentaries to living history re-enactments. Tasting History blends these two things together, as host Max Miller cooks a variety of different historical dishes, and uses those as an entry point to talk about some of the historical events and personalities associated with the food.

I love history and I love cookery shows, so Tasting History is absolutely the kind of thing that was going to appeal to me! But a fun premise alone wouldn’t be enough, and Tasting History has a well-spoken host who makes both sides of the show entertaining as well as interesting. I’ve learned a lot about different dishes and historical cultures this year, things I never would have found out about if not for Tasting History.

Best TV Special:

πŸ₯ˆ Runner-Up πŸ₯ˆ
Lego Star Wars: Terrifying Tales

After 2020’s Lego Star Wars Holiday Special had been a ton of fun, I was pleasantly surprised to see Disney+ bringing back Lego Star Wars for another outing this year. Terrifying Tales was a fun Halloween special, one which drew on many classics of the thriller and horror genres for inspiration while maintaining a child-friendly atmosphere. I’m not a huge fan of horror, so this lighter tone was just perfect for me!

Focusing on Poe Dameron, Terrifying Tales used a frame narrative to tell three different spooky stories set in all three of the Star Wars franchise’s main eras. The first short, which focused on Kylo Ren, contained more backstory for the character than the entire sequel trilogy – and I would argue that it was actually better than the minuscule character development that Kylo/Ben Solo got in the films!

Palpatine was hilarious in the vignette that featured him, and I adored the way that Terrifying Tales used the character. The third and final vignette was a parody of a Twilight Zone episode and featured Luke Skywalker, and that was pretty fun to see as well. Overall, Terrifying Tales was a cute, funny, and lightly spooky way to get ready for Halloween!

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
The Grand Tour: Lochdown

As we approach the pandemic’s second anniversary, we need things like Lochdown to poke fun at what’s been going on in the world. In a unique way that only Hammond, Clarkson, and May can really pull off, The Grand Tour’s special episode made a trip to Scotland one of the funniest and most entertaining bits of television I enjoyed all year.

The trio have found great success at Amazon, and free from the constraints of the BBC (both financially and in terms of content), I’d argue that The Grand Tour is leaps and bounds ahead of Top Gear. As the show has switched its focus to these kinds of special episodes, there’s been a lot of fun to be had!

I’m not really a car person. Cars have always been a means to an end for me; a mode of transportation. But the enthusiasm of the three hosts for their vehicles is infectious, and the fun they have on their wacky adventures always manages to succeed at pulling me in and making me feel like I’m right there with them.

Worst TV Series:

πŸ† “Winner” πŸ†
Rick and Morty Season 5

After four pretty strong and funny seasons, Rick and Morty stumbled this year. It felt to me like the writers had become a little too aware of the show’s success and place in pop culture – and didn’t really know how to handle that. Season 5 was bland and forgettable, with several episodes that didn’t even win a smile, let alone a laugh.

Rick and Morty crossed over from being a fun series with a cult following and really hit the mainstream somewhere around its third season, and clearly that’s been a double-edged sword. Too many of the attempted jokes this year came across as either desperate or else simply as gross-outs or edginess for the sake of it.

Though the show had a few successful moments, such as the scenes between Rick and Birdperson toward the end of the season, Season 5 has to be considered a failure.

Best TV series:

πŸ₯ˆ Runner-Up πŸ₯ˆ
Foundation

The first season of Foundation was imperfect but nevertheless good. The novels upon which Foundation is based are incredibly dense works that can, at points, feel more like philosophy than sci-fi, so bringing something like that to the small screen was no small challenge – but Apple TV+ stepped up.

Jared Harris put in a wonderful performance as Hari Seldon, and was joined by several actors with whom I was less familiar – but who all did an outstanding job. Foundation is also a visually beautiful series, one which makes great use of Apple’s high CGI budget. A second season has already been confirmed – so that’s something to look forward to in 2022!

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
The Wheel of Time

The Wheel of Time was the first of Amazon’s two big-budget fantasy shows to make it to screen. We’ll have to wait until next year for the corporation’s Lord of the Rings prequel/adaptation, but The Wheel of Time is definitely a show worth watching in its own right. It has struggled, at times, to break out from the shadows of both Game of Thrones and the aforementioned Tolkien adaptation, but I’m so glad that I gave it a chance to impress me on its own merits.

Outside of the Star Trek franchise, The Wheel of Time is unquestionably the best television show I’ve seen all year. Amazon managed to adapt the first part of a long and complex story in a way that was understandable and easy to follow, bringing a new high fantasy world to the screen for the first time. There are some fantastic performances from Rosamund Pike and Madeleine Madden in particular, making The Wheel of Time a series to get lost in.

The first season concluded recently, and a second is already on the way! I can hardly wait.

Worst Video Game:

πŸ† “Winner” πŸ†
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

This is a difficult one. There were plenty of bad games this year – games with horribly intrusive monetisation, overladen with bugs, or that just plain sucked. But for me, the year’s most egregious video game failure is a so-called “remaster” that was lazy, that didn’t feel like much of an upgrade, and that left me incredibly disappointed when I consider what might have been.

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition contains a number of bugs that were present in the original versions of its three constituent games; bugs that BioWare failed to fix. Its visual upgrade, coming less than ten years after the third game in the series, was already going to be a hard sell, but there seem to be many textures that BioWare either didn’t touch at all or else did the absolute bare minimum to.

And that’s Mass Effect: Legendary Edition in a nutshell: it’s a “remaster” that tried to get away with doing the absolute bare minimum. The sad thing is that I adore the Mass Effect games – but this version was so much less than it should’ve been.

Best Video Game:

πŸ₯ˆ Runner-Up πŸ₯ˆ
Road 96

Road 96 is quite unlike anything else I’ve played all year – and probably for quite a long time before that too! The game focuses on characters, introducing players to dozens of completely unique NPCs during a branching quest to escape a totalitarian state. It’s a road trip game… but that definition scarcely does it justice.

Road 96 has a beautiful art style, too, one that really brings to life its characters and American Southwest-inspired locales. There’s a wonderful soundtrack that accompanies the game, one with a definite ’80s inspiration – which I’m totally there for! It’s hard to go into too much detail without spoiling Road 96, and it’s an experience I really think you should try for yourself in as unspoiled a manner as possible.

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
Kena: Bridge of Spirits

When I was thinking about my pick for “game of the year,” there was never any doubt in my mind that Kena: Bridge of Spirits would take the trophy. It’s one of the most visually beautiful games that I’ve ever played, bringing an almost Disney-esque art style to life in the most fantastic way possible.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a modern-looking game with a distinctly old-school feel to it. The game combines elements of puzzle-solving and 3D platforming with some tight, focused combat, and the addition of the Rot – little critters that accompany Kena – is both adorable and incredibly useful. Collecting things in video games can feel like busywork, but because Kena’s power grows with every Rot she picks up, even this aspect of the game manages to feel worthwhile.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits had been one of my most-anticipated games of the year. It didn’t just meet my expectations – it surpassed them by a country mile.

Worst Film:

πŸ† “Winner” πŸ†
Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a film that tried to be dark and edgy and in doing so ended up robbing its source material of any of the fun and entertainment value it could’ve had. DC Comics has struggled to compete with Marvel, failing to recognise that it’s Marvel’s blend of humour and action that makes those films so appealing to many viewers. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a case in point – and a great example, in my opinion, of a film that completely misses the mark.

Perhaps to distinguish it from the likes of The Avengers, Zack Snyder’s Justice League was packed with gimmicks, too. An incredibly dark and boring colour palette drowned the film in grey, black, and brown tones, and some scenes were so poorly-lit that following the action became difficult. It was also shot in a weird 4:3 aspect ratio – again, seemingly for the sake of a gimmick.

I’m genuinely happy for fans of DC who worked hard to secure the so-called “Snyder Cut” after a long campaign. But the end result was, for me, the worst film I’ve seen all year. And this was a year where I watched Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Best Film:

πŸ₯ˆ Runner-Up πŸ₯ˆ
Raya and the Last Dragon

I paid a lot of money (by my standards, at least) to watch Raya and the Last Dragon on Disney+! Maybe I should’ve waited the extra couple of months, but I was genuinely interested to see the latest big Disney animated picture. The one surprise was the lack of any musical numbers, but despite that I had a good time with Raya and the Last Dragon.

Kelly Marie Tran put in an outstanding performance as the titular Raya, a young woman on a quest to restore the life of a dragon and reunite a fractured land loosely based on Southeast Asia. The film was dramatic and exciting, with a fun cast of characters. It’s also noteworthy that all of the main characters – heroes and villains – were women.

Now that it’s on Disney+ (and out on DVD and Blu-Ray) it’s definitely worth a watch.

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
Dune

I was worried that Dune would once again prove to be too difficult to adapt, but I was thrilled to see that I was wrong! Dune is a sci-fi masterpiece, and if its second instalment comes anywhere close to living up to this first part, I think we’ll be talking about the duology alongside the likes of The Lord of the Rings in years to come as being an absolute classic.

Dune is a long and occasionally dense book, so condensing it down and keeping a cinematic adaptation with a large cast of characters easy to follow was no mean feat. Director Denis Villeneuve did an outstanding job, and every aspect of the film, from its dialogue to its visual effects, are pitch-perfect.

I’ve had a review of this one in the pipeline for a while, so stay tuned in the new year – I might finally get around to finishing it!

Most Exciting Announcement:

πŸ₯ˆ Runner-Up πŸ₯ˆ
Wicked

Picture Credit:Β Wicked the Musical London.

I was very lucky to have seen Wicked on the stage in London early in its run, and the soundtrack has to be up there as one of the best modern musicals. The announcement of a film adaptation came as a truly welcome surprise this year, and I will follow its progress with anticipation!

A spin-off from The Wizard of Oz, Wicked purports to tell the story from “the other side” – i.e. the Wicked Witch’s point of view. Disney in particular has shown in recent years that this concept can work exceptionally well, and Wicked pulls it off. The musical and the book that inspired it are very different, but both are enjoyable in their own ways – and I hope the film will be as well!

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Remake

Early in 2021 there were rumours of a Knights of the Old Republic game being in development, but it wasn’t until September that its existence was finally confirmed. A full-scale remake of the first game in the series is being worked on, and the idea of being able to go back and replay one of my favourite Star Wars games of all time is a truly exciting one!

So far all we’ve seen has been a CGI teaser, so the game is probably a couple of years away. But it’s still good to have something like this to look forward to! After several years of very limited success under Electronic Arts, Star Wars games are now being tackled by more developers and publishers – meaning we should see more from the franchise in the years ahead. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a remake of Knights of the Old Republic II after this one!

Best Star Trek Episode:

πŸ₯ˆ Runner-Up πŸ₯ˆ
There Is A Tide…
Discovery Season 3

There Is A Tide is basically “Star Trek does Die Hard!” If that sounds like fun to you, then we are definitely on the same page! Featuring a desperate plan to re-take the USS Discovery following its capture by a villainous faction, Michael Burnham, Tilly, and several members of the bridge crew all get their chances to be action heroes.

It isn’t an entirely self-contained episode, as it brings to a head Starfleet’s conflict with the aforementioned villainous faction that had been running for much of the season, as well as containing other ongoing story threads. But it works well as a single episode, too, with an explosive and action-packed story that feels like it was lifted right out of an action blockbuster!

There Is A Tide is a great episode for Michael Burnham, but it’s also good for Admiral Vance as well. He truly seems to embody the values that Starfleet and the Federation have always held, and anyone who feels that Discovery has placed less of an emphasis on that should pay attention to Vance’s scenes in particular.

πŸ† Winner πŸ†
First First Contact
Lower Decks Season 2

First First Contact is an incredibly well-done episode of Lower Decks. The series’ trademark sense of humour is still present, but we see the entire crew of the USS Cerritos working hard to overcome an incredibly difficult challenge and save not only an ailing Starfleet ship but also an entire planet. The crew rise to the occasion as we always knew they could, and First First Contact hits all of the emotional highs you could ever want from an episode of Star Trek.

It’s also an episode that truly embraces the spirit of the franchise. The Cerritos’ crew aren’t faced with some horrible monster or alien to defeat, instead the puzzle that lies before them is scientific – and the solution to it has to be as well. All of the main and secondary characters get moments in the spotlight, and First First Contact even found time to further advance the relationship between Ensign Mariner and Captain Freeman.

Finally, there was an incredible moment of symmetry toward the end of the episode, as the Cerritos saved the day in a very similar fashion to how it had to be saved in the Season 1 finale. That moment was pitch-perfect – and I won’t lie… I teared up!

So that’s it!

We’ve dished out a handful of awards to some of the best – and worst – entertainment experiences of the year. 2021 is a difficult one to summarise. The ongoing disruption caused by the pandemic has been noticeable, with delays and even some cancellations getting in the way and spoiling the fun. But there were some fantastic projects across cinema, television, and video games too – including some brand-new titles that I feel have the potential to lead to ongoing franchises, or to be talked about a lot in future as classics of their various genres.

As 2022 approaches, I hope you’ll stay tuned for a lot more to come from Trekking with Dennis! In the days ahead I plan to look forward to some of the films, games, and television shows that we could enjoy throughout the coming year, so definitely stay tuned for that! And I have a number of reviews and other articles in the pipeline.

So the only thing left to do is to wish you a very Happy New Year! Whatever you have planned for tonight, I hope you have an amazing time. See you next year!

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


Check out reviews or articles featuring some of the films, games, and TV shows mentioned on this list by clicking or tapping the links below:

Lego Star Wars: Terrifying Tales

Rick and Morty Season 5

The Wheel of Time

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Raya and the Last Dragon

Wicked

Knights of the Old Republic Remake

Discovery 3×12 There Is A Tide…

Lower Decks 2×10 First First Contact

A handful of older films, games, and TV shows that I enjoyed in 2021

Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers may be present for some of the entries on this list.

At this time of year, practically every outlet – from dying newspapers to new social media channels – churns out list upon list of the best entertainment products of the year. The top threes, top fives, top tens and more of 2021 abound! I have something similar in the pipeline, but today I wanted to take a look back at a handful of films, games, and TV shows from previous years that I found myself enjoying in 2021.

I have long and seemingly ever-growing lists of films, games, and TV shows that I keep meaning to get around to! I still haven’t seen Breaking Bad, for example, nor played The Witcher 3, despite the critical and commercial acclaim they’ve enjoyed! I also have a huge number of entertainment properties that I keep meaning to re-visit, some of which I haven’t seen since we wrote years beginning with “1.” In 2021 I got around to checking out a few titles from both of these categories, and since there are some that I haven’t discussed I thought the festive season would be a great opportunity for a bit of positivity and to share some of my personal favourite entertainment experiences of 2021… even though they weren’t brand-new!

Film #1:
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03)

We’ve recently marked the 20th anniversary of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s magnum opus. The passage of time has done nothing to detract from these amazing films, and this year a 4K Blu-Ray release has them looking better than ever before.

The early 2000s had some serious pitfalls for film and television. CGI was becoming more mainstream and many filmmakers sought to take advantage of it, but just look to the Star Wars prequels and how outdated the CGI in those titles is; it hasn’t held up well at all. The majority of the special effects in The Lord of the Rings were practical, and combined with clever cinematography even incredibly dense and complex battle sequences still look fantastic two decades on.

Though I don’t re-watch The Lord of the Rings every single year without fail, I’m happy to return to the trilogy time and again – and I almost certainly will be for the rest of my days! The Hobbit and Tolkien’s Middle-earth was one of the first fantasy worlds I encountered as a young child; I can vaguely remember the book being read to me when I was very small. The conventional wisdom for years was that The Lord of the Rings was unfilmable – but Peter Jackson proved that wrong in some style!

Film #2:
Despicable Me (2010)

I spotted this while browsing Netflix one evening, and despite having seen at least one film with the Minions, I hadn’t actually seen the title that started it all. I have to confess that I didn’t have particularly high expectations, thinking I was in for a bog-standard animated comedy. But Despicable Me has heart, and there were some genuinely emotional moments hidden inside.

The Minions got most of the attention in the aftermath of Despicable Me, and can now be found on everything from memes to greetings cards! The critters are cute, but they’re also somewhat limited – and I think it’s for that reason that I didn’t really expect too much from Despicable Me except for maybe a few laughs and a way to kill an empty evening. I was pleasantly surprised to find a much more substantial film than I’d been expecting.

There were still plenty of laughs and a ton of cartoon silliness to enjoy and to keep the tone light-hearted. But there was a surprisingly emotional story between the villainous Gru and the three children he adopts – especially Margo, the eldest. I can finally understand why the film has spawned four sequels, fifteen shorts, and a whole range of merchandise!

Film #3:
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

The Final Frontier has a number of issues that I’m sure most of you will be aware of. It arguably suffered from a little too much involvement from William Shatner, who sought to put Captain Kirk at the centre of the story at the expense of others. But The Final Frontier has some truly great character moments, including one of the final times that Kirk, Spock, and Dr McCoy would be together before The Undiscovered Country brought an end to Star Trek’s original era.

The film has some truly funny moments, too: the scene where Uhura catches Chekov and Sulu pretending to be caught in a storm being one, and Scotty’s moment of slapstick being another that never fails to win a chuckle. The Undiscovered Country was a great send-off for Star Trek’s original crew, but it was quite a heavy film with a lot of tense moments and high-octane action. The Final Frontier brings more light-hearted moments to the table, and that’s something I can appreciate when I’m in the right mood.

There are some exciting sequences too, though. The shuttle crash is a very tense and dramatic moment, and the final confrontation with the entity at the centre of the galaxy, while silly in some respects, does succeed at hitting at least some of those same dramatic highs. Though I wouldn’t suggest that The Final Frontier is anywhere near the best that Star Trek has to offer, it’s well worth a watch from time to time.

Game #1:
Control (2019)

Though hardly an “old” game, I missed Control when it was released in 2019. It had been on my list for a couple of years, and I was pleased to finally get around to playing it this year. The game had a far creepier atmosphere than I’d been expecting, with protagonist Jesse having to battle an unseen enemy called the Hiss.

One thing I really admire about Control is the way it made incredibly creative use of some fairly plain environments. The entire game takes place in what’s essentially a glorified office building, and rows of cubicles or the janitor’s workspace could, in other games, come across as feeling bland and uninspired. But Control leans into this, using the environments as a strength, juxtaposing them with incredibly weird goings-on at the Bureau of Control.

I also liked that, for the first time in years, we got full-motion video sequences in a game! FMV was a fad in gaming in the early/mid-1990s I guess, primarily on PC, and titles like Command and Conquer and Star Trek: Starfleet Academy made use of it. It had been years since I played a game with FMV elements, and it worked exceptionally well in Control – as well as being a completely unexpected blast of nostalgia!

Game #2:
Super Mario 64 (1996)

Despite the serious limitations of Super Mario 3D All-Stars on the Nintendo Switch, which I picked up last year, I can’t deny that it’s been fun to return to Super Mario 64. One of the first fully 3D games I ever played, Super Mario 64 felt like the future in the late ’90s, and even some titles released this year, such as Kena: Bridge of Spirits, owe parts of their 3D platforming to the pioneering work that Nintendo did with this game.

Super Mario 64 is and always has been good, solid fun. There doesn’t need to be an in-depth, complex story driving Mario forward to collect stars, because the game’s levels and bosses are all so incredibly cleverly-designed. Jumping in and out of different painting worlds is relatively quick and feels great, and the sheer diversity of environments is still noteworthy in 2021. Mario goes on a journey that takes him through snowy mountains, a sunken shipwreck, sunlit plains, cities, clouds, and more.

I can’t in good conscience recommend Super Mario 3D All-Stars. The way these games have been adapted for Nintendo Switch isn’t worth the asking price. But even so, going back to Super Mario 64 has been one of my favourite parts of 2021, a chance to reconnect with a game I played and loved on the Nintendo 64. If you’ve never played it, track down a copy and give it a go. You won’t regret it.

Game #3:
Red Dead Redemption II (2018)

I’d been meaning to get around to Red Dead Redemption II for three years – but I’d always found a reason not to pick it up (usually it was too expensive!) It took forever to download on my painfully slow internet connection, but it was well worth the wait. I’ve had a fascination with America in the 19th Century for as long as I can remember – I guess partly inspired by playground games of “the wild west” that were fairly common when I was young. I even had a cowboy hat, toy gun, and “Davy Crockett” hat when I was a kid!

Red Dead Redemption II transported me to that world in a way that I genuinely did not think was possible. Films and TV shows can do a great job at pulling you in and getting you lost in a fictional world, but the interactive element of video games can add to that immersion – something that was absolutely the case with Red Dead Redemption II. The amount of detail in the game’s characters and open-world environments is staggering, and having finally experienced it for myself I can absolutely understand why people hail this game as a “masterpiece.”

I wasn’t prepared for the many emotional gut-punches that Red Dead Redemption II had in store. In many ways the game tells a bleak and even depressing story, one with betrayal, death, and many examples of the absolute worst of humanity. But every once in a while there are some incredibly beautiful moments too, where characters sit together, sing, play, and revel in their bonds of friendship. Red Dead Redemption II gave me the wild west outlaw fantasy that my younger self could have only dreamed of!

TV series #1:
Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-69)

I’ve re-watched quite a lot of The Original Series this year, probably more episodes than I’d seen in the past few years. Because of its episodic nature, it’s easy to dip in and out of The Original Series, firing up an episode or two to spend an hour with Captain Kirk and the crew without feeling the need to commit to an entire season of television.

The Original Series started it all for Trekkies, and I’m always so pleased to see that modern Star Trek hasn’t lost sight of that. In this year’s episodes of Lower Decks and Discovery we’ve gotten many references and callbacks to Star Trek’s first series, keeping the show alive and relevant as we celebrated its fifty-fifth anniversary – and the centenary of its creator, Gene Roddenberry.

Though dated in some ways, many of the themes and metaphors present in The Original Series are still relevant today. Society has changed since the 1960s, but in some areas we’re still fighting the same or similar fights for acceptance, for equality, and so on. The Star Trek franchise has always had a lot to say about that, being in some ways a mirror of society and in others depicting a vision of a more enlightened, optimistic future.

TV series #2:
Fortitude (2015-18)

I went back to re-watch Fortitude this year, for the first time since its original run. The series starts very slowly, seeming at first to be little more than a murder-mystery in a different setting. But it builds up over the course of its first season into something truly unexpected, crossing over into moments of political thriller, action, and even horror.

There are some truly shocking and gruesome moments in Fortitude, and it can be a harrowing watch in places. But it’s riveting at the same time, and I managed to get hooked all over again by the complex characters, the mysteries and conspiracies, and the bleak but beautiful arctic environment.

Fortitude featured some star names among its cast, including Michael Gambon, Stanley Tucci, and Dennis Quaid – the second-most-famous Dennis to be featured on this website! Although it was fun to watch it weekly during its original run, Fortitude is definitely a show that can be enjoyed on a binge!

TV series #3:
Family Guy (1999-Present)

Family Guy’s sense of humour sometimes runs aground for me, dragging out jokes too long or failing to pay off neat setups with decent punchlines. But with the full series (up to midway through Season 20 at time of writing) available on Disney+, I’ve found myself putting it on in the background a lot this year. The short runtime of episodes, the lightheartedness, and the way many of the jokes are often disconnected from whatever nonsense plot the episodes have going on all come together to make it something I can dip in and out of while doing other things.

There are some insensitive jokes, and some entire storylines in earlier episodes have aged rather poorly. But Family Guy seldom strikes me as a show punching down; it satirises and pokes fun at many different groups. In that sense it’s kind of halfway between The Simpsons and South Park; the former being more sanitised and family-friendly, the latter being edgier and meaner.

I rarely sit down and think “gosh, I must watch the latest Family Guy episode.” But if I’m in need of background noise or something to fill up twenty minutes, I find I’ll happily log into Disney+ and put on an episode or two.

So that’s it.

There have been some great films, games, and television shows that were released in 2021. But there were also plenty of entertainment experiences from years past that, in different ways, brightened my year. As we gear up for New Year and for everyone’s end-of-year top-ten lists, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that.

I hope you had a Merry Christmas, a Happy Holiday, or just a relaxing day yesterday! I did consider writing something to mark the day, but I found that I had remarkably little to say that was different from the piece I wrote last year. 2021 has been “2020 II” in so many respects, unfortunately. However, unlike last Christmas I will be able to visit with some family members – I’ll be seeing my sister and brother-in-law later this week, which will be a nice treat! So here’s to 2021’s entertainment experiences – and as we enter the new year, it’s worth keeping in mind that we don’t only have to watch and play the latest and newest ones!

All titles on the list above are the copyright of their respective broadcaster, distributor, developer, network, publisher, studio, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Five films (and TV specials) to watch this Holiday Season!

Christmas is edging closer by the day! The main event itself is now only a couple of weeks away, so we’re well and truly in the wintery grip of the Holiday Season. This time I thought it could be fun to take a look at five films and television specials that make for great festive viewing.

Although I’m not a religious person by any stretch, Christmas has always been an event I look forward to… beginning as early as September! Though not every Christmas was perfect when I was a kid, I have some pretty happy memories of this time of year, and there’s something about the juxtaposition of the cold, dark winter going on outside with the warmth and the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree inside that really makes this time of year feel special, almost magical!

Christmas is coming!

Between the lights, decorations, and festive pop hits, I think it’s fair to say I’m all about the secular, commercial side of Christmas; Santa Claus, not Jesus, stands out to me as the season’s main character! So that’s my mindset as we go into this list.

Please keep in mind, as always, that this list is wholly subjective. If you don’t like any of these Christmas films and television specials, that’s perfectly fine. I’m not trying to pretend that these are the “all-time best ever” Christmas specials, or anything of the sort!

With that caveat out of the way, let’s dive into the list!

Number 1:
The Polar Express (2004)

The titular Polar Express.

When it was released in 2004, The Polar Express received criticism for its “creepy” CGI – but I think it’s safe to say that its semi-realistic animated style has aged pretty well. Tom Hanks stars in this modern animated classic, and takes on several different voice roles across the film. Not providing names for main characters is a risk (not to mention something you’d get a failing grade for in most creative writing classes!) but that doesn’t actually hamper The Polar Express. The nameless protagonists are arguably more relatable as a result, allowing the audience to project themselves onto the characters with ease.

There may have been a couple of Christmases when I was very young where I did, in fact, believe in Santa Claus (or Father Christmas, as we call him here in the UK). But my parents didn’t do the whole “all of your gifts come from Santa” thing, and among my earliest Christmas memories I can remember writing thank-you notes to family members for the gifts they’d given me. These things vary from family to family, though, and while I wouldn’t like to speak outside of my own experience, I think a lot of you probably have some recollection of believing in Santa Claus and subsequently losing that belief. It’s a theme that many different Christmas films have tackled – but The Polar Express gets it right. The protagonist learns, over the course of his adventures, to keep believing – a metaphor, perhaps, for valuing one’s childhood and remaining youthful.

The nameless protagonists.

I’ve always liked trains, and The Polar Express shows us a beautiful CGI rendition of an old-fashioned steam locomotive. Trains – model trains in particular – have somewhat of an association with Christmas, but this method of transporting kids to the North Pole was certainly unique! It gives The Polar Express a sense of adventure that road trip films and other films about long journeys often capture so well, with scenes like running around on the train roof and the train skidding across the ice all playing into that.

The Polar Express is a film with heart, but it’s also something a little different from the typical “let’s go and meet Santa Claus” fare of many other shows and films aimed at children. There’s a sense of scale in the journey we see the protagonists undertake, and because it’s told from a child’s perspective, there’s still some of that mystery and wonder; the sense that the kids don’t really know how everything works on the train. That magic is part of what makes the holidays so special.

Number 2:
The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special (2020)

Promo image for The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special.

I’ve had a review of this one in the pipeline since last year, but for various reasons it got buried under too many other writing projects in the days before Christmas! Stay tuned, though, because I daresay I’ll get around to a full write-up eventually! For now, let’s hit the key points. The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special is hilarious, and I found it to be a great palate-cleanser after The Rise of Skywalker had been such a disappointment.

Unlike this year’s Lego Star Wars Terrifying Tales, which focused solely on Poe Dameron, The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special brings back all of the main characters from the sequel trilogy – then takes a wild ride through all three of Star Wars’ main eras thanks to some well-timed space magic! Star Wars fans should appreciate many, many callbacks to past iterations of the franchise – not least the notorious Holiday Special, which was released in 1978 to critical derision!

Finn, Rey, Poe, Rose, and Chewbacca.

The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special is full to the brim with gentle jokes and parodies that poke fun at the Star Wars franchise without ever coming across as mean-spirited or laughing at fans. Some humourless fans, or those who want to lose themselves in that world, might find that offputting, but I reckon that a majority will be able to enjoy The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special for what it is: non-canon fun.

I was pleased to see that Disney+ is intent on doing more with the Star Wars brand than just serious projects like The Mandalorian, and in some respects I think we can argue that The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special – and other Lego Star Wars titles too – fill a niche similar to Star Trek: Lower Decks over in another wonderful sci-fi franchise. No Star Trek holiday special yet, though… but maybe one day!

Number 3:
I Won’t Be Home For Christmas
The Simpsons Season 26 (2014)

The Simpsons’ house all decorated for the season.

The Simpsons has undeniably lost its edge in recent seasons, and it’s increasingly rare to pluck out a genuinely good episode from the ever-growing pile – something I found out when I put together a list of a few of my favourite episodes earlier this year. But every now and then The Simpsons can still produce an episode somewhat akin to those from its more successful past. I Won’t Be Home For Christmas is, in my view anyway, among them.

Perhaps it’s the holiday theme that elevates what might otherwise be a less-enjoyable episode, but I find that there’s something very relatable about I Won’t Be Home For Christmas. A few years ago, when I was suffering with undiagnosed mental health issues and in the midst of a divorce, I found myself wandering the dark, empty streets on Christmas Eve – trying to clear my head. The sequences in which Homer does something similar in this episode really hit home for me because I’ve been in a similar position myself.

I found this presentation of Homer to be very relatable.

When you’re watching what feels like the whole rest of the world closing their doors and enjoying the holidays without you, life can feel incredibly lonely. Homer meets a number of characters on his own journey, but that sense of loneliness and missing out on what’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year is still a prevalent theme that runs through the entire story.

On a more positive note, I Won’t Be Home For Christmas features a couple of genuinely good jokes and laugh-out-loud moments. It also kicks off with a Christmas-themed reworking of the show’s famous opening sequence, so if you’re watching on Disney+ don’t hit the “skip intro” button! You’ll miss something fun if you do. In a lot of ways I feel echoes of Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire in I Won’t Be Home For Christmas – and not just because of its holiday setting. The episode feels like a throwback to earlier seasons, when The Simpsons as a whole was doing far better at producing stories like this one.

Number 4:
Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too (1991)

Is that Santa and his reindeer?

My younger sister received a VHS copy of Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too as a Christmas present (I would guess in 1992) and watched it endlessly! As a result, it’s probably one of the Christmas specials that I’ve seen most often – it was a mainstay in our house in the run-up to Christmas for several years in a row! What’s more, the original Winnie the Pooh books by A. A. Milne were permanent fixtures on my childhood bookshelf, and I’m sure those books were read to me when I was very small. So the entire Winnie the Pooh series is something I have a great fondness for!

Christmas is a time for nostalgic steps back like this, forgetting the modern world and all of its troubles for a while. Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too is an incredibly sweet Christmas tale set in the Hundred Acre Wood, perfect for a few minutes wrapped up in Christmas-themed cuteness and escapism. Or is that just the nostalgia talking?

Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger, and Pooh.

Because Winnie the Pooh has always been pitched at very young children, the story here is rather basic. There’s a kerfuffle surrounding Christopher Robin’s letter to Santa, and Pooh tries to save the day. Despite those limitations, though, the story is incredibly cute, really sweet, and full to the brim with Christmas fun.

Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too isn’t something I go back to year upon year; doing so would probably ruin the magic. But every once in a while I treat myself to this blast of very personal ’90s nostalgia and enjoy my memories of Christmases past. As 2021 looks set to be the second Christmas in a row where we may not be able to do everything we’d want, I think finding moments like that might be very important for a lot of folks.

Number 5:
Phineas and Ferb: Christmas Vacation (2009)

The special’s title card.

As a childless adult, Phineas and Ferb is a series that shouldn’t have had much appeal for me! But as I’ve said many times before, the best kids’ shows have something to offer adults as well, and when I sat down to watch Phineas and Ferb for the first time back when I had the Disney Channel, I found a truly engaging and fun little cartoon.

That extends to the Christmas special too, which is one of the high points of the entire series – in my subjective opinion, naturally! I’m a total sap for the “Christmas is in danger, someone needs to save it!” plot clichΓ©, and Phineas and Ferb: Christmas Vacation puts the series’ trademark spin on that familiar premise. It’s a lot of fun!

Perry and Dr Doofenshmirtz.

I never miss an opportunity to talk about Phineas and Ferb. The show finished its run in 2015, but last year returned for a one-off Disney+ original film, which was absolutely fantastic too. Unlike some of the other entries on this list, which I’ll happily rewatch on occasion, I return to Phineas and Ferb: Christmas Vacation every year without fail – something I’ve done for a decade now!

Phineas and Ferb: Christmas Vacation keeps the series’ trademark twin storylines – the boys and the other kids on one side, Perry the Platypus and Dr Doofenshmirtz on the other. Both stories come together in one connected narrative, but the show sticks to its two angles throughout – and what results is a story with moments of excitement, high drama, and emotion as the boys race to save Christmas.

Bonus:
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Nintendo Switch (2020)

Promo for New Horizons’ Christmas event.

If you’re an Animal Crossing player, Christmas Eve is where it’s at! But throughout December it’s possible to buy special seasonal items, to see your island all decorated for the holidays, and to take note of what some of your island friends might want by way of gifts! The Christmas event is known as Toy Day in the world of Animal Crossing, and while it’s possible to ignore it and get on with your regular island life, it’s a bit of fun to play through these one-off events.

As December dawns on your island – at least if you’re playing on a Northern Hemisphere island – snow will start to fall. You’ll be able to build a snowman every day – and building the perfect one unlocks special ice-themed items. There are snowflakes to catch, which are used as DIY ingredients to craft new seasonal items too.

A wintery New Horizons island!

Later in December, Isabelle will announce that she’s decorated some of the island’s trees – but only the pine trees. When I played last year not every pine was decorated, but those that were looked adorable with their little festive lights! Shaking these trees also provided yet another crafting material which could be used to create holiday-themed items.

I’ve been critical of New Horizons for its longevity in particular, but there are few games that offer this style of gameplay. Last year I played through the Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year events on my island, and I have to say I had a lot of fun with all of them. The Toy Day event on Christmas Eve (not Christmas Day!) is the kind of sweet Christmassy fun you’d expect from a game in the Animal Crossing series, and if you missed it last year it’s well worth playing through at least once.

So that’s it!

It’ll be the big day before we know it!

I’ve got a few more holiday-themed ideas for the website between now and Christmas – which is getting closer and closer by the day. I hope you like the festive banner and the little Santa hat on the website’s logo, too! I had fun messing around and putting those together.

There are lots of great festive films and holiday specials that I didn’t include on this list, so have a browse through the television listings or your streaming platform of choice. I’ll probably be checking out a mix of old favourites and new entries – there are always plenty of new holiday films every year. I’ve heard good things about 8-Bit Christmas this year, for example! I hope this list has been a bit of festive fun as we continue to get into a holiday groove!

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

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

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

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

The Sega Dreamcast failed in 2001.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how does all of this relate to streaming?

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

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

There are a lot of streaming platforms in 2021.

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

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

Too many corporate leaders fundamentally misunderstand streaming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten shows to watch instead of Star Trek: Discovery Season 4

Spoiler Warning: There may be minor spoilers for some of the shows on this list.

The person who coined the phrase “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” evidently never met the marketing team at ViacomCBS. The Star Trek: Discovery clusterfuck continues to damage the company, the Star Trek brand, Paramount+, and everything else it touches, with Discovery’s fourth season now being soiled, stinking of shit even for those fans in North America who’ve been able to sit down and watch it.

Whether you’re pirating Discovery Season 4 or not – and honestly, you’re 100% morally justified in doing so if you choose to – I thought that today we should consider some alternatives. Maybe you’ve decided not to pirate the series, or to wait and see how things go. Or maybe you’re still so darn mad at Discovery that watching it wouldn’t feel appropriate right now. So let’s take a brief look at ten television shows that you could watch instead. I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum!

Oh, and if you’ve tuned in looking for my weekly Discovery Season 4 reviews or theories, I’ve made the reluctant decision to put those on hold for the time being due to what’s happened.

Number 1: The Wheel of Time

Promotional image for The Wheel of Time.

The Wheel of Time premieres today, so I can’t claim to have watched it for myself at time of writing! But Amazon has invested heavily in this fantasy epic, one which is based on a long-running series of novels by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. It’s been a long time since I read any of the books (and I didn’t come close to finishing the set) but from what I remember, The Wheel of Time has a complex story full of magic, wonder, and nuanced characters.

Several big-budget fantasy shows were commissioned in the aftermath of the success of Game of Thrones, and initial reviews of The Wheel of Time sound promising. I’ve been looking forward to watching the show all year, and it’s finally here! The first three episodes are being made available at the same time as a kind of extended premiere, with the remainder of Season 1 following on a weekly basis. This could be a great replacement for Discovery between now and Christmas.

Number 2: Foundation

Jared Harris and Lou Llobel star in Foundation.

One of Apple TV+’s first big-budget shows, Foundation has been interesting to follow across its first season. Is it perfect? No, but for an adaptation of a very dense series of books that I would’ve considered borderline unfilmable, I think the series makes a creditable effort to bring the story to screen.

Foundation stars Jared Harris in a key role, and he’s an absolutely fantastic actor who brings a lot to the series. At time of writing there’s one episode left in Season 1, and a second season has already been confirmed for next year.

Number 3: The Expanse

Several of The Expanse’s main cast aboard the Rocinante.

The Expanse is one of the finest science fiction TV shows I’ve ever seen outside of the Star Trek franchise. Its world-building is absolutely fantastic, showing us a look at a near-future where Mars and parts of the asteroid belt have been colonised, but where faster-than-light travel and many other common sci-fi technologies don’t yet exist.

Originally debuting on the SyFy network, The Expanse was later picked up by Amazon following a fan campaign. There are five seasons already, with a sixth and final season scheduled to premiere next month – so you’ve got time to binge the show and get caught up!

Number 4: Firefly (and Serenity)

The main cast of Firefly.

The big caveat with Firefly has to be that the show was never given a chance to live up to its full potential, being cancelled after just one season. But the feature film Serenity brought the cast back and provided the story with closure (of a sort) so it’s absolutely worth watching if you haven’t seen it already.

Firefly brought to screen a uniquely western-themed sci-fi universe that felt truly real and lived-in in a way few franchises manage to do. It’s positively criminal that one season and one film are all we ever got – but what a fantastic season it was!

Number 5: Fortitude

Several members of the Fortitude Season 1 cast.

We’re returning to Earth for this entry on the list! I thought I knew what to expect from Fortitude when I sat down to watch the show. It’s set in a small town in the Norwegian arctic, and I was expecting it to be a fairly standard crime drama. But the show took a series of turns, going from crime to mystery to thriller and even touching on horror and science fiction.

It’s hard to explain Fortitude without spoiling it – and I would say that some of its storylines go a bit wild toward the end. But if you get stuck into it, as I did, you’ll have an amazing time.

Number 6: Star Trek: Picard

Sir Patrick Stewart reprised his famous role last year.

Chances are if you’re reading this you’re a Trekkie and you’ve already seen Picard Season 1. And I would absolutely understand if the Discovery debacle has soured you on Star Trek at the moment. But whether you missed Season 1 or just haven’t seen it since it was broadcast in early 2020, it’s a fine drama series worth going back to.

Remembrance, the season premiere, is one of the finest episodes of Star Trek – and one of the finest episodes of television in general – that I’ve ever seen. The season’s story builds slowly to a conclusion that was, unfortunately, more than a little rushed, but if you can look past the imperfections present at the story’s end, Picard Season 1 is a fun Star Trek adventure.

Number 7: The Mandalorian

Mandy the Mandalorian.

I have to confess that I’m not wild about The Mandalorian. It’s okay – and it contains some great action set-pieces and moments of drama. But my disappointment stems from the fact that the show’s promised “different look” at the Star Wars galaxy kind of fell by the wayside due to the inclusion of too many elements from the films.

Despite that, The Mandalorian has some great moments, and is well worth watching for any Star Wars fan. Two seasons have been put to screen thus far, though I’d argue that their short runtime and serialised story means you only really get one full season’s worth of content. Two spin-offs and a third season are coming next year, so if you’re not caught up on Star Wars yet, now could be a good moment!

Number 8: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

The titular duo.

I’m not the world’s biggest Marvel fan, but this miniseries on Disney+ was less about superheroes and was more of an action-adventure romp with the titular characters. There were callbacks to a lot of previous entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but even as someone who doesn’t follow the MCU religiously I found the series approachable.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier tells a largely self-contained story, and it was one that aimed to be uplifting as well as entertaining. I published a review of the miniseries a few months ago, and you can find it by clicking or tapping here – but beware of spoilers!

Number 9: Chernobyl

“Not great, not terrible” would be a bad way to describe 2019’s Chernobyl.

Chernobyl was a sensation when it was first broadcast in 2019, and for good reason. The miniseries, which documents the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, is one of the finest ever put to screen. This is a story you’re probably at least vaguely familiar with, but Chernobyl goes into detail, looking at the disaster from all angles.

I find it hard to say anything negative about Chernobyl at all; as both a work of drama and a serious historical piece it’s perfect. It even contains a great scene explaining the basics of how a nuclear reactor works!

Number 10: The Center Seat

Logo for The Center Seat.

The History Channel is currently a couple of episodes into its documentary all about the Star Trek franchise. There will be eight more episodes over the coming weeks, documenting the history of Star Trek from the production side going all the way back to Gene Roddenberry’s initial pitch for the series in the early 1960s.

I love a good documentary, and as the Star Trek franchise celebrates its fifty-fifth year, why not take a look back? As Trekkies we should aim to be knowledgeable about the production of the franchise we love, and The Center Seat aims to present its history in an easily understood form.

So that’s it. Ten shows to watch instead of Star Trek: Discovery Season 4.

I think a lot of Trekkies feel the way Book’s feeling right now.

Those are words that I never thought I’d have to write. Discovery’s fourth season had been my most-anticipated television show of 2021, and even now that we’re a couple of days out from the news that we wouldn’t be getting the series, the sense of disappointment and anger with the corporate morons in charge of ViacomCBS remains. But I hope, after a couple of days of outright negativity, this list has been a bit of a break.

Each of the shows above are absolutely fantastic in their own ways, and while it’s true that nothing can fully replace Star Trek: Discovery for a big fan of the series, hopefully you’ve found a few ideas to at least take your mind off things. Social media has been reflecting the outrage directed at ViacomCBS over the past couple of days, and while there’s nothing wrong at all with registering your disgust with the way that the corporation has behaved, please keep in mind that the actors, directors, and other behind-the-camera crew had nothing to do with this decision. In many ways, it harms them too because it’s tainted their hard work and left even North American Trekkies feeling upset and angry. Negativity and division within the Star Trek fandom is never a good thing. It’s such a shame ViacomCBS chose to inflict it upon us on this occasion.

All television series mentioned above are the copyright of their respective owner, network, broadcaster, streaming platform, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Rick and Morty Season 5 review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Rick and Morty Seasons 1-5.

Rick and Morty recently wrapped up its fifth season, and unfortunately it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable affair when compared to past seasons. I didn’t get into Rick and Morty until Season 2, so I was a bit late to the party in that sense. But the show hooked me in with its incredibly funny, utterly random, and frequently dark sense of humour, as well as a compelling main character in Rick Sanchez. I’ve stuck with the series since, and generally I’ve enjoyed most of the episodes that the series has put forward.

Season 5 almost certainly had fewer laugh-out-loud moments for me than any prior season of the show. Several episodes barely won so much as a smile, and while animation can be about more than just jokes and gags, the truth is that I come to a series like Rick and Morty to have a fun time. In that sense, Season 5 was a let-down when compared to what came before.

The titular characters didn’t have a particularly memorable or fun season this time around.

When I watch something like Star Trek: Lower Decks, and to an extent shows like The Simpsons as well, dramatic moments can absolutely be as enjoyable and entertaining as the jokes and moments of humour. I don’t want – or expect – shows like those to have me rolling around on the floor all of the time. And to a degree that applies to Rick and Morty as well – when the show gets its character moments right, there can be some genuinely emotional story threads that contribute to the series and elevate it. In short, my expectations weren’t for pure comedy all the time; if I wanted that I’d watch a sketch show or something.

But even with that caveat, Season 5 feels disappointing. To have endured several episodes that were neither funny nor particularly dramatic or emotional either left me feeling, on more than one occasion, with a sense of “what’s the point in watching this?” I felt that I wasn’t getting anything from Season 5 much of the time: not jokes, not characterisation, just animated content that retained the show’s trademark colourful sci-fi aesthetic but with nothing to back it up.

The “sperm episode” has to be the season’s worst by far.

Season 5 was also an incredibly meta season of Rick and Morty, one which abandoned the show’s earlier episodic format in favour of, as Rick derisively put it in the season finale, “serialised drama” and self-referential storylines. Being self-aware can be funny, and Rick and Morty has skirted the fourth wall on multiple occasions going all the way back to its inception. This time, though, the overreliance on meta-jokes, in-jokes, and self-reflection came across as self-congratulatory navel-gazing at best, and just plain boring and forgettable at worst.

While in the process of writing up this review I actually had to go back and read up on what happened in at least half of the episodes, as I’d literally forgotten entire stories and plotlines. Some story elements and moments from Rick and Morty have become absolutely iconic: the Mr Meeseeks from Meeseeks and Destroy, the “show me what you got” aliens from Get Schwifty, and even the stupid szechuan sauce from The Rickshank Rickdemption that kicked off a run on McDonald’s restaurants. All of these moments – and others, too – stick in the mind and have become emblematic of the series as a whole, showing how every aspect from concept to writing to vocal performances and animation all came together to create moments of amazing comedy or drama. Season 5 had no such moments, and will remain a forgettable season.

This episode with the demon-creatures? Totally forgettable.

As I’ve said before, practically every television series has a natural lifespan, and after seeing the lacklustre Season 5 I can’t help but feel that Rick and Morty may have peaked somewhere around Season 3. It’s not impossible for the series to recapture the magic, and I’m rooting for Season 6 to do so. But when a show becomes aware of its own success and its own reputation – which Rick and Morty surely did around the time of the szechuan sauce affair, if not earlier – it can be impossible for writers and producers to get back to making the show the way they used to.

There are myriad examples of this. In live-action we can point to Game of Thrones, specifically how in later seasons the writers and showrunners wanted to keep the unpredictability alive, leading to many disappointing out-of-character moments and storylines that felt random because of how they hadn’t been set up. In animation we can point to how The Simpsons lost its way sometime around the millennium and has limped on ever since, impotently trying to recapture its glory years.

Is that where we’re at? Has Season 5 marked the beginning of “zombie Rick and Morty” where the series mindlessly shuffles onward, not really funny any more but with enough of a pop culture following as to be uncancellable? I certainly hope not.

Has Rick and Morty peaked?

The season finale strikes me as particularly odd. The “evil Morty” storyline from Season 1 was brought to an end, but it was handled in such a way as to at least tease that Rick and Morty might go through a soft reboot of sorts; the destruction of the “central finite curve” potentially opens up new parallel universes for the titular heroes to explore. But the series never struck me as one that was running out of ideas in that sense – the multiverse the series has depicted since Season 1 feels so vast that we can barely have scratched the surface even after five full seasons.

Perhaps the best episode came late in the season, with Rickternal Friendshine of the Spotless Mort. Birdperson – one of the few characters we could describe as being a true friend to Rick – had been killed off, then resurrected as a villain, before being killed off again in earlier seasons. Giving this character a better send-off was as close to an emotional moment as Season 5 managed to get. Despite not being an especially funny episode, the interplay between Rick and Birdperson as they traversed the latter’s dying mind was dramatic enough to carry the story.

Rick and Birdperson in Season 5.

It’s difficult to know what else to say about a season of television that was so bland, uninspired, and just plain forgettable. Rick and Morty Season 5 marks a low point for a series that has previously delivered some incredible sci-fi humour. I’d considered Rick and Morty a worthy follow-up to Futurama, which was another great animated sci-fi series, but perhaps the reality is that the show needs a break.

It’s profoundly odd to think that a series like Rick and Morty – with potentially an entire multiverse at its disposal – could have come to the end of its run so quickly, but a series of poor decisions on the part of its creative team left this most recent outing feel incredibly shallow and disappointing. Perhaps the pressure of writing for an increasingly-popular series is to blame. Perhaps it’s the decision to go down an incredibly meta route. Regardless, what resulted was a season that failed to recapture the magic of earlier episodes, and one which came up short in practically every respect other than the quality of its animation.

Rick and Morty Season 5 is broadcast on Adult Swim in the United States and on Channel 4 in the UK. Rick and Morty is the copyright of Adult Swim, Warner Bros. Television, and/or Williams Street Productions. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Stand – miniseries review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Stand.

I’ve been to Stephen King’s house. Not for any function, of course – nor indeed was I invited. But in his hometown of Bangor, Maine, King’s house is a local landmark with ornate gates befitting the preeminent author of pop-horror. I’m categorically not a fan of horror on screen, either television shows or films. Modern horror tends to veer very strongly into jump-scares – which always unnerve me – or just gore for the sake of gore, which I really have little interest in. But Stephen King straddles the line between out-and-out horror with a creepy weirdness that can, under the right circumstances, be absolutely riveting.

The Stand has already been adapted for television, with a miniseries in 1994 starring Gary Sinise. I put that adaptation on a tongue-in-cheek list that I wrote last year, before I became aware of this latest adaptation. Like my last miniseries review – which was for Marvel show The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – this review is also late to the party! The Stand was broadcast on CBS All Access – since rebranded as Paramount+ – late last year. Though I’ve been meaning to watch it ever since – and it even made my list last June of things I was looking forward to in the second half of 2020 – it’s taken me until now to get around to it.

Promotional poster for The Stand.

I feel more than a little sorry for this adaptation of The Stand, which languished in development hell for years before being commissioned in early 2019. The miniseries was filmed in late 2019 and early 2020, before the extend of the coronavirus pandemic became evident, and I think the mere premise of the series was more than enough to put people off given what’s happening in the world. Having invested in the project, it wasn’t practical for ViacomCBS to just sit on it or dump it – so it ended up being broadcast to a world that, quite frankly, was not in the mood for a show about a viral pandemic that killed everyone. That might undersell what The Stand is – or what it aims to be. But it nevertheless goes some way toward explaining its muted reception.

There were some inspired casting choices. James Marsden channels his inner Gary Sinise to put on a performance that lived up to – and in some respects mirrored – Sinise’s own in the 1994 adaptation. Alexander SkarsgΓ₯rd was fantastic as the villainous Dark Man/Randall Flagg. And Owen Teague – who I confess I wasn’t familiar with prior to The Stand – put in a truly inspired performance as the creepy Harold Lauder.

Owen Teague as Harold Lauder.

Stephen King’s novel Rage, about a shooting at a high school, hit a little too close to home even for the author and has been out of print since the early 2000s. In the characterisation of Harold Lauder, one of The Stand’s villains, I note some familiar themes. Lauder is an outcast, an obsessive, a true-to-type “incel” who blames society and the world around him for his own lack of success. Lauder is an interesting villain in some respects – though he has no real nuance, I think a lot of people are familiar with someone like this; someone who’s generally unsuccessful in life and who’s become bitter, jaded, and even creepy. The Stand throws such a person into the apocalypse, and Lauder’s newfound freedom allows him to follow his own destructive course.

The Stand mixes supernatural horror with post-apocalyptic storytelling, which make a natural pair at certain points, yet tug against each other and fail to gel at others. The miniseries contains some genuinely amazing moments and scenes that rival anything else in the entire post-apocalyptic genre. There’s a sweeping shot of New York City in the second episode, showing smoke from numerous small fires drifting over the city and Central Park, and it was incredibly atmospheric. This kind of silent storytelling, using the camera and some minimal visual effects work, did an amazing job at setting up the world that The Stand wanted to transport us to, and there were numerous examples of this across the nine-episode series.

The very atmospheric shot of New York City burning.

One thing I’ve always been interested in when it comes to post-apocalyptic fiction are the character stories – who survives whatever the event is and why? And what sort of person do we find in the aftermath of such events? The Stand gives us plenty of examples of thoroughly unpleasant people: criminals, liars, thieves, and worse. It also shows us examples of better people: heroes and those willing to do what’s right. Unfortunately that comes at the expense of nuance; The Stand basically splits its characters into goodies and baddies with very little going on in between.

We’ve already talked about Lauder and his characterisation as creepy, bitter, and ultimately murderous. But other villains fall into even more obvious stereotypes: Lloyd is a wannabe-gangster, the Trashcan Man is a pyromaniac, Nadine is the girl who made a deal with the “devil.” And speaking of the devil, the Dark Man himself, Randall Flagg, is a Stephen King mainstay and stand-in for the devil.

Randall Flagg – a.k.a. the Dark Man.

In that sense, nothing about The Stand is subtle. Its narrative centres around the battle of “good versus evil,” and that naturally divides its characters into two camps. Those on the side of good are selfless exemplars of virtue, those on the bad side are basically Satanic stereotypes who revel in every sin imaginable. The Stand setting its villain’s headquarters in Las Vegas – Sin City itself – is likewise about as subtle as a brick to the face.

Not every story has to have complexity and nuance; there’s room for a classic “heroes and villains” narrative even in 2021. But something about the way The Stand leaps headfirst into so many patently obvious plotlines and character arcs makes it less than it could’ve been. There are definitely narrative elements that are unpredictable, but most of the mainstays of both the overarching storyline and the individual stories of the characters felt telegraphed in advance, and that robbed the series of a good portion of its impact and drama.

The choice of Las Vegas as the setting for a story about the demerits of sin was… obvious.

In terms of the soundtrack and music, I have to credit The Stand as being truly fantastic. Practically every one of the nine episodes contains moments of extreme tension, and these moments were elevated significantly by some excellent, understated musical scoring. Music sets the stage for many significant scenes and moments, and the difference in tone it sets between the heroes’ home base in Boulder and the devil’s nest in Las Vegas is huge – and a big part of why the contrast between the two settings works so well. Each episode also features at least one popular song, and the choices here were generally good as well. I particularly liked the use of Melanie’s Brand New Key – it’s a great song in its own right, but the way it was used at the end of one of the episodes gave it a strangely creepy, almost otherworldly feel.

Cinematography was likewise pretty good across the board. There were some really excellent artistic shots – I mentioned the New York City one above, but also a shot of Frannie and Harold split through a wall was fascinating, as well as numerous silent (or practically silent) moments featuring Nick, the deaf character, which really added to the sense of immersion. Nick’s scene with the piano, in which we could see the inner workings of the piano but not hear the notes, was inspired, and something I would’ve expected to see in a series like Hannibal – another horror series with a strong artistic slant to its cinematography.

One of the very artistic moments involving Nick and the piano.

The way The Stand uses light was interesting. At first, I felt that the way several different characters seemed to leave lights on and candles burning was just typical post-apocalyptic/horror fare – a cheap way for villains to track or find them. But there’s something more to it than that, and the way the series as a whole used light, and particularly uncovered, obvious light, feels like a metaphor. The Stand is a series flooded with religious imagery, and there’s something almost poetic about seeing many of the heroic characters as representatives of “the light” against the forces of the Dark Man.

There was only one real miss in terms of visual effects, and it came in the final episode. In a sequence that was basically fully-animated, the camera panned over the ruins of Las Vegas to focus on Flagg’s trademark badge, and the whole thing fell into the so-called “uncanny valley,” where the CGI work just wasn’t quite believable enough. It wasn’t awful by any means, and would compare favourably to anything from ten years ago, even in cinema, but in a series that otherwise did its visual effects well, it has to go down as the weakest moment.

The CGI sequence that I felt didn’t quite stick the landing.

I’m not a religious person, and perhaps someone who is would get something more out of The Stand, which relies heavily on Christian apocalypticism for the theme underpinning its main story. At the same time, some of these religious themes work against the narrative – or at least the setting. The Stand wants to be bleaker than it manages to be; a post-apocalyptic tale of desperate people driven to do evil things and kill themselves. Yet the use of Christian imagery, which ramps up to near-continuous after about the halfway point, tugs The Stand in the other direction, softening some of those dark edges. What results is a series that’s confused.

The Stand wants to be two things at once: post-apocalyptic horror and supernatural horror with strong religious themes. As noted above, these two can make a natural pair, but The Stand doesn’t nail the pairing on every occasion, and there are times when the religious themes work against the bleaker, character-centric story about the world after an apocalyptic event. The theme of hope, which is so often present in post-apocalyptic fiction, is undermined by the sense that many of the protagonists have that their quest is anointed by an all-powerful interventionist god.

Mother Abigail’s role as the prophet of a very active and involved god gave hope to many of the characters – and led to a less satisfying narrative as a result.

Hope in post-apocalyptic stories works when it seems like characters have little to no reason to cling to it, yet through sheer force of will and strength of character, they find ways to do so. Some characters may revel in small victories – like the character of Tallahassee in Zombieland who finally gets a Twinkie (a kind of small cake) after craving one for the whole film. Others find meaning in their companions, fellow survivors, or family members – like Viggo Mortensen’s character in The Road, for example. The Stand drops all of its protagonists into a setting where they never genuinely question their status as “god’s chosen” and their hope for a better future stems from that. But that foundation, while somewhat novel, loses something significant as a result – and that something unfortunately happens to be what I personally find one of the most interesting and appealing things about post-apocalyptic stories.

Frannie’s snap decision at the beginning of the final episode to return to Maine felt like it came out of nowhere; an arbitrary character move to give the story a “shock” as it entered its endgame. Though the characters were, as I explained above, pretty standard heroes and villains, they were generally consistent in the way they were written and in their motivations. Frannie left Maine with Harold initially in search of others, and having found them, made friends, and begun to build a new civilisation in Boulder, seems far too quick to throw it away for the sake of what? Homesickness? If she’d mentioned Maine even once or twice in previous episodes it would at least feel like there’d been hints she was feeling this way. Sometimes when a story knows the endgame it wants to reach, some character choices necessary to get there can feel completely arbitrary, and Frannie’s desire to return to Maine – without even really providing a reason why – definitely falls into that category.

I wasn’t sold on Frannie’s out-of-nowhere decision in the final episode.

Though not really overt, there was one significant political theme that I picked up in The Stand. In the character of Flagg we have a dictator – someone who rules through fear, as characters like Glen note. The way Flagg draws his supernatural powers, embodied by his ability to levitate, from the worship and fear of his subjects could be read as a commentary on the way any dictator’s power relies on the people around them continuing to “feed” them with that fear. Or to put it another way: people have the power, even when it seems like a truly evil tyrant is in charge. We see this as Larry, Glen, and Ray’s challenge to his authority quickly inspires others and leaves him significantly weakened.

I’m a big fan of the Star Trek franchise, as you may know if you’re a regular around here. Star Trek: The Next Generation in particular is a favourite series of mine, and Whoopi Goldberg’s role as Mother Abigail had more than a little of her Star Trek character of Guinan in it. Guinan serves as a friend and guide to Captain Picard, and in particular her role in episodes like Q Who and Time’s Arrow, as well as the film Generations lines up perfectly with Mother Abigail’s place in The Stand. Though this isn’t intentional, of course, as a Trekkie I just find it interesting to note when former Star Trek stars take on new roles that are somewhat similar! Goldberg’s performance was excellent, and she brought a real weight or gravitas to the role of Mother Abigail that was much-needed.

Whoopi Goldberg as Mother Abigail.

The Stand attracted some controversy in the months before its broadcast for casting a non-deaf actor in the role of deaf character Nick. Nick’s role in the show does involve some scenes where he can hear and speak, and for that reason creator Josh Boone defended the decision. While I would say that I generally don’t subscribe to the camp that says actors can only play roles if they meet certain criteria, in this case it would have been relatively easy to cut the couple of scenes in which Nick speaks, or to replace them with signed scenes. It would take away a tiny bit of the supernatural aspect of Mother Abigail’s abilities, but there was more than enough of that through the rest of the show that I don’t think it would’ve made a significant difference. With that being the case, a deaf actor could have certainly taken on this role.

As someone who is disabled, I would be quite happy with an able-bodied actor playing a disabled role – so long as it was done tastefully and it doesn’t feel as though anyone has been excluded. Likewise with characters who are asexual or who are in between male and female on the gender spectrum; I think so long as it doesn’t stray into voyeuristic territory, actors can take on a wider variety of roles. There are great actors who are deaf, disabled, and in other categories, and I hope they find opportunities to play characters as well. I don’t want to see anyone’s career options limited, and as mentioned in this case I think the couple of scenes where Nick spoke could have been cut or changed to accommodate a deaf actor. As a general point, though, I’m okay with actors from many different backgrounds being able to take on a variety of roles. Perhaps this is something we should go into more detail in on another occasion, as I feel it could be an entire essay in itself, and I don’t want to spend too much time on just this one point on this occasion.

Another promotional poster for The Stand.

So I think we’re about at the end of my review. The Stand was interesting, and had some genuinely great moments. It was also a flawed production that didn’t get everything right and could feel, at certain moments, that it was trying to be two very different things at the same time. In part that fault lies with the source material – Stephen King’s novel. But it also lies with the adaptation and the way in which the novel was put to screen.

Despite nominally falling into the horror genre, The Stand won’t be giving me nightmares any time soon! It was tense at points, and there was some distinctive Stephen King supernatural weirdness, but nothing that I felt was terrifying or frightening. There was some gory violence and some gratuitous sex scenes that really didn’t add much to the story. But there was also some fantastic musical scoring and cinematography, as well as some great acting performances that elevated the series, making it better than it could’ve been.

I’m in no hurry to re-watch The Stand now that I’ve seen it. And with so many interesting film and television projects on the horizon between now and Christmas, I daresay it will go back on the shelf (or rather, Amazon Video’s shelf) for quite some time. But I’m glad to have finally got around to seeing it more than six months after its debut! Now, what should I watch next?

The Stand is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Amazon Video (for a fee) in other countries and territories. The Stand is the copyright of ViacomCBS and/or Vertigo Entertainment. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

We’re halfway through 2021!

It’s the last day of June, and as we bid goodbye to the month we also mark the halfway point of 2021. I think that makes it a good opportunity to take stock and look ahead to the entertainment experiences that lie before us between now and Christmas.

Pandemic-related disruptions continue across the entertainment industry, but after more than a year of evolving working practices due to coronavirus, I think it’s not unfair to say that many more projects have managed to enter or remain in production over the last few months than were able to at this point last year. This bodes well for upcoming titles across film, television, and video games, and today I’m going to pick out a small selection of each that I’m looking forward to before the end of the year.

Television:

It’s probably television that has the most to offer – at least for me personally – in the second half of 2021. There are several big shows coming up that I can’t wait to get stuck into, and I’m sure you can probably guess what some of them are!

Number 1: Star Trek: Discovery Season 4

Discovery’s third season was an entertaining ride, and succeeded at establishing the 32nd Century and the Federation’s place in it. In the aftermath of the Burn – the galaxy-wide catastrophe which devastated known space – and the shortage of dilithium, Season 4 will hopefully see the crew beginning to pick up the pieces.

The trailer for Season 4, which was shown off in April as part of Star Trek’s First Contact Day digital event, also showed Captain Burnham and the crew facing off against a “gravitational anomaly” which seemed to be wreaking havoc with the ship and the Federation at large. What is the “gravitational anomaly?” I don’t know – though I have a few theories! We’ll find out more when Discovery Season 4 premieres on Paramount+ (and on Netflix internationally) in the autumn.

Number 2: Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2

After a hilarious first season, Lower Decks is returning to our screens in August – and this time Star Trek fans the world over should be able to watch the show together. Season 1 had the difficult task of taking Star Trek into the realm of animated comedy for the first time. Having proven to be a success with that concept, Season 2 can let its hair down and really double down on what fans loved last year.

There are a couple of lingering storylines left over from the Season 1 finale that I’m genuinely interested in seeing resolved. But beyond that, I can’t wait for more wacky Star Trek-themed hijinks with Mariner, Boimler, Rutherford, and Tendi! Luckily we won’t have to wait too long for this one; Lower Decks Season 2 will debut on Paramount+ (and on Amazon Prime Video internationally) on the 12th of August – barely six weeks away!

Number 3: Star Trek: Prodigy

This one has to be tentative. Upcoming children’s show Star Trek: Prodigy has been suggested for a 2021 broadcast, but with no date confirmed as of yet, and with the aforementioned Lower Decks and Discovery taking up the Star Trek broadcast slots for much of the rest of the year, I don’t know where ViacomCBS plans to fit Prodigy in.

Despite that, as we continue to learn more details about the series, it sounds genuinely interesting and looks set to be a lot of fun. The best kids’ shows manage to have something to offer adults as well, and I hope Prodigy can manage to do that while retaining an atmosphere that’s fun for children. Out of all the recent Star Trek projects, Prodigy feels like it has the most potential to introduce the franchise to a new generation of fans. There’s currently no date on the calendar, so watch this space.

Number 4: Rick & Morty Season 5

We’ve already had two episodes of the fifth season of Rick & Morty, but there are eight more to come over the next few weeks! The trademark brand of wacky, non-sequitur humour that the show is known for is still present, and it continues to be a barrel of laughs! Rick & Morty paved the way in some respects for Star Trek: Lower Decks, and there are similarities between the two shows in terms of sense of humour and animation style.

Rick & Morty’s largely episodic nature keeps the show fresh, and while there are some jokes and storylines that perhaps take things too far, on the whole the show has largely avoided the trap of going over-the-top or falling into being offensive for the sake of it. You know the formula and main characters by now, and Season 5 seems like it’s shaping up to offer more of the same – and that’s a compliment. Rick & Morty Season 5 is ongoing on Adult Swim in the United States (and on E4 in the UK).

Number 5: Foundation

Isaac Asimov’s genre-defining epic is being adapted for the small screen by Apple, and it will star Jared Harris. Harris was fantastic in Chernobyl and also put in a stellar performance in The Terror, so I can’t wait to see what he’ll bring to the role of Hari Seldon. Foundation is an incredibly ambitious project; the seven-book series spans hundreds of years of galactic history and deals with some very deep and complex themes.

Apple TV+ is very much a second-tier streaming service. This is its first big push to change that; Apple’s first real foray into big-budget scripted television. I hope the company can use its phenomenal financial resources to do justice to one of the seminal works of science fiction.

Number 6: Dexter

I watched several seasons of Dexter in the mid/late-2000s, but eventually the series started to feel repetitive so I switched off. I’m curious, however, to see what the passage of time will do for the show and its titular anti-hero when it returns in what has been variously billed as both a “reboot” and a “continuation” depending on who you ask! The concept of Dexter was interesting when it kicked off in 2006, and hopefully the new season can recapture the magic of those early years of the show.

The idea of a show about a serial killer where the killer is known to us as the audience, and not only that but is the protagonist was genuinely different. Dexter’s work with the forensic team was a big part of what gave the show its unique mix of police/detective series along with gritty, violent drama, and I’ll be curious to see where the new season has taken the character – as that will be the key to its success.

Number 7: The Dropout

If you aren’t familiar with the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, it’s one that’s simultaneously riveting and frightening. Holmes and her startup Theranos promised to revolutionise the way blood testing works, enabling people to take blood tests without needing to visit a doctor and in a less-painful way. But it was a fraud: the technology didn’t work and Holmes and her team covered it up.

There have been several great documentaries and news broadcasts going into detail on the Theranos case, and with Holmes and others still awaiting trial it remains unresolved. This adaptation of an ABC News podcast will be the first dramatisation of the events of the Theranos scam, and despite some production setbacks it looks like it has the potential to be truly interesting when its broadcast on Hulu (and on Disney+ internationally) before the end of the year.

Number 8: Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series (full title unknown)

I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll see the first season of this incredibly expensive television show this year. With half the year gone, there hasn’t been much news about Amazon’s Game of Thrones-killer. That aside, a return to Middle-earth sounds incredible, and by taking the action away from most of the characters we’re familiar with from the films, hopefully what will result will be a genuinely different experience that doesn’t try to mimic the films too heavily.

Amazon has thrown cinema-level money at its Lord of the Rings adaptation, so I’m expecting to see something incredibly impressive for that investment.

Number 9: The Witcher Season 2

I’ve never played The Witcher 3 or any of the other games in the series. But the first season of Netflix’s adaptation of the original novels was great, and it’s always nice to see a high-budget fantasy project make it to screen! The first season debuted in late 2019, and I had half-hoped to see Season 2 before now. It’s still possible it won’t happen before the end of the year, but a recent teaser from Netflix suggests that Season 2 is in post-production and progressing nicely.

After such a long break, I feel like I should probably re-watch Season 1 before sitting down to see any new episodes! Henry Cavill will reprise his role as Geralt, and all being well Season 2 will be just as good as Season 1.

Number 10: Tokyo Vice

This true-crime series is based on the memoir of an American journalist, Jake Adelstein, who spent several years in Tokyo. In short, he documented a lot of police corruption during his tenure as a newspaper reporter in the 1990s, and given HBO’s pedigree at making high-budget series, I think there’s a lot of potential here.

Speaking as a westerner, Japan can be somewhat of a mystery. Romanticised by some, ignored by others, the truth is that many folks who’ve never set foot in Japan don’t know the first thing about Japanese life – and Tokyo Vice may just blow the lid off the seedier underbelly of Japan’s capital city in a big way. I’m calling it right now: this show could be 2021’s Chernobyl.

Film:

An increasing number of films are coming straight to streaming platforms – or being released digitally at the same time as heading to the box office. This is great news for me personally, as I’m not able to go to the cinema in person. There are some interesting titles coming up in the second half of the year.

Number 1: Jungle Cruise

In 2003 I felt that making a film based on the Disneyland/Disney World ride Pirates of the Caribbean was a stupid idea. Shows what I know, eh? Pirates of the Caribbean was great fun, so I’m hopeful that Disney’s latest ride adaptation will be as well. The Jungle Cruise ride takes theme park guests on a riverboat through – you guessed it – a jungle!

Hopefully the excitement that the ride offers will translate well to the screen. Parts of the trailer looked very CGI-heavy, and I hope that won’t be too offputting or problematic. Otherwise all I can really say is I’m looking forward to seeing what the film has to offer.

Number 2: Free Guy

Ryan Reynolds stars as a video game character who becomes sentient. I don’t know what else to say other than that sounds like a hilarious premise, one well-suited to Reynolds’ comedic style.

Video games have been the subject of many different films over the years, both as plot points and as direct video game adaptations. But no film so far has taken this approach; Free Guy looks set to be a unique experience when it arrives on the 13th of August.

Number 3: No Time To Die

This is the third or fourth time I’ve put No Time To Die on a list of “upcoming” titles. But this time it really is going to be released! Right?! Delayed by almost two years at this point, Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007 looks set to be an explosive and action-packed experience, and hopefully will bring down the curtain on his tenure in the role in suitable fashion.

The film will feature Academy Award-winner Rami Malek as its main villain, and I’m very interested to see what he’ll bring to the table. All being well, No Time To Die will be released at the end of September – and I’m curious to see whether it’ll be released on Amazon Prime Video as well, following Amazon’s acquisition of MGM.

Number 4: Encanto

We don’t know too much right now about Disney’s next big animated film. It’s set in Colombia, so there’ll be a Latin/South American feel. The film will focus on a girl who’s the only one in her family unable to use magic. I think we can expect an uplifting story of someone learning to be themselves and discover their own talents!

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who composed the soundtrack to 2016’s Moana (as well as Hamilton, In The Heights, and many others) is collaborating with Disney for a second time on the soundtrack to Encanto. That alone makes the film very exciting and worth checking out. Currently Disney aims to release Encanto in cinemas with no word on a Disney+ premiere.

Number 5: The Green Knight

I’ve long had an interest in the legends of King Arthur, and this film adaptation of one of the lesser-known Arthurian works looks set to be interesting at the very least. I got almost a horror or supernatural vibe from the trailer for The Green Knight, and while I’m not a big horror fan personally, I think the film has potential.

I’m not familiar with the director or most of the cast, so I can’t comment on the film’s pedigree. But with a decent budget and solid source material, this could be an interesting one to watch when it arrives at the end of July.

Number 6: Space Jam: A New Legacy

I don’t think I’ve re-watched the original Space Jam since it was released in 1996. But despite that, the idea of a sequel to the fun basketball-meets-Looney Tunes flick seems like it’ll be a lot of fun! Starring Star Trek: Discovery’s Sonequa Martin-Green alongside basketball legend LeBron James, the film looks set to follow a similar formula to its famous ’90s predecessor.

Nostalgia is a big deal in entertainment at the moment, so I’m not surprised to see ’90s hits like Space Jam being brought back. Hopefully A New Legacy can live up to the original film when it’s released in just a couple of weeks’ time.

Number 7: Dune

As with Foundation above, Dune is an adaptation of an absolutely iconic work of science-fiction. Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel has been notoriously difficult to bring to the screen, and while this version is the first part of a duology, in many respects the complicated story might be better served as a television series than in the cinema.

Despite that, however, I’m looking forward to Dune’s November premiere. A huge budget, visual effects that look outstanding, and a star-studded cast will hopefully all come together to make this latest adaptation a success.

Number 8: Top Gun: Maverick

It’s been a long time since I saw Top Gun, the film which propelled Tom Cruise to superstardom. To produce a sequel 35 years after the original film is, in some respects, a risk. But as already mentioned, nostalgia is a huge driving force in the modern entertainment industry, and with Cruise stepping back into the shoes of fighter pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, there’s already been a huge amount of interest.

Top Gun: Maverick will come to Paramount+ shortly after its theatrical release, which will hopefully give the streaming platform – Star Trek’s digital home – a nice boost.

Number 9: The Matrix 4

Although The Matrix 4 remains on the schedule for 2021, with so little information about the production – not even a name – I think we have to call this one tentative. 2003’s Reloaded and Revolutions seemed to bring the story to a pretty definitive end, so I’ll be interested to see where a new instalment takes the sci-fi/action series.

Most of the original cast are reprising their roles, and Lana Wachowski is set to direct. After the Wachowskis came out as transgender and completed their transitions, many critics have re-evaluated The Matrix and its “red pill, blue pill” analogy through the lens of trans experiences. As someone who’s recently been exploring my own gender identity, I’ll be very curious to see what the fourth film in the series has to say about the subject.

Number 10: Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

The Resident Evil film series, which ran from 2002 to 2016, is a rare example of a successful video game adaptation on the big screen. Following 2016’s The Final Chapter, Welcome to Raccoon City aims to reboot the film franchise, and bring it closer in line with the video games that originally inspired it.

The video game Resident Evil 2 was recently remade, and that game’s success may have inspired some of the choices made for the film, including the decision to incorporate several major characters from the video game series. Even though horror isn’t really my thing, the Resident Evil films always managed to be the right mix of frightening and action-packed, and I’m hopeful for something similar from this reboot.

Video Games:

Some folks felt that this year’s E3 was a disappointment because of how many games have been pushed back to 2022. That’s another consequence of the pandemic, unfortunately! But there are still a number of exciting games coming before the end of the year.

Number 1: Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Kena: Bridge of Spirits has been on my radar for a while. Its Disney-inspired art style looks utterly adorable, and I can’t wait to give the game a try. There’s always room for this kind of single-player action-adventure title, and the premise of being a “spirit guide” who helps the newly-deceased sounds unique and fun.

I’m hopeful that developers Ember Lab, working on their first game after transitioning from digital animation, will succeed at creating an enjoyable, perhaps somewhat different experience.

Number 2: Bear and Breakfast

One of the indie highlights of E3 in my opinion, the adorable-looking, vaguely Stardew Valley-esque Bear and Breakfast is scheduled to launch before the end of the year. The premise, in case you didn’t get it, is that you run a bed & breakfast in a forest, and you’re a bear. What’s not to love about that?!

The game’s cartoony visual style looks cute, the premise sounds unique and just the right kind of silly, and I’m just really looking forward to giving Bear and Breakfast a shot.

Number 3: The Lord of the Rings: Gollum

This one has to be tentative, as there’s been very little movement on the game all year. Its absence at E3 was noticeable, and we may learn that it’s going to be delayed until next year. However, Gollum is a very interesting project. What could a game where this vile, villainous character is the star possibly have to offer? There have been antiheroes in gaming before, but few characters are as repulsive as Gollum!

And I think that’s what’s so fascinating about this title. Taking on the role of Gollum, and experiencing an adventure in Middle-earth from his perspective is almost certainly going to make for a game that’s one-of-a-kind.

Number 4: Mario Party: Superstars

Though its price seems rather steep, Mario Party: Superstars is bringing back classic boards and mini-games from the original Nintendo 64 Mario Party games. I had great fun with the first Mario Party in particular, and being able to play remastered versions sounds like a blast of nostalgia and potentially a lot of fun.

I can’t escape the feeling that Superstars might’ve been better value were it half the price, or an expansion pack for Super Mario Party instead of being a full-price standalone title. But despite that, it sounds like fun.

Number 5: Halo Infinite

After a disappointing trailer last year, Halo Infinite was delayed and reworked, ultimately meaning it didn’t launch alongside the Xbox Series X last November. Following a year-long delay, the game is now set to launch in time for Christmas, alongside a free multiplayer mode.

Since Halo Infinite will be coming to Game Pass I daresay I’ll give it a go when it comes out. After a six-year gap – the longest in the history of the series – fans will be clamouring for more from the Master Chief, as well as looking to see whether 343 Industries have finally managed to get the elusive Halo formula right. With a television series also in the works, Microsoft is investing heavily in the Halo brand.

Number 6: Age of Empires IV

Sticking with Microsoft, the next big brand they’re bringing back is Age of Empires! After the first three games were successfully remade over the last few years, the launch of Age of Empires IV is the series’ real test. Can Xbox Game Studios craft a title that successfully brings the classic real-time strategy series firmly into the modern day?

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition in particular has built up a solid fanbase, with plenty of folks playing the game competitively online. A lot of them will be interested to try Age of Empires IV, so the game has the potential to be a success. The original Age of Empires was my first real introduction to the world of real-time strategy, so I’m rooting for the success of the latest entry in the series.

Number 7: Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga

This is another one we’ll have to call tentative. There’s been radio silence from Traveller’s Tales and Warner Bros. since the game was delayed back in April – having already been delayed twice previously. However, I’m still hopeful that we’ll see it before the end of the year – it would be a great stocking stuffer were it to launch in time for Christmas!

2006’s Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga was absolutely brilliant; a comedic, light-hearted take on Star Wars. I’m hoping this new game can live up to that legacy and bring a dose of fun to Star Wars. Maybe it’ll even make the dire Rise of Skywalker bearable!

Number 8: Road 96

I can’t actually remember where I first saw indie title Road 96. But the idea sounds great: a procedurally-generated game in which your character has to escape from a dangerous country. Some of the landscapes shown off in the trailer looked similar to the American Southwest, and I love the visual style.

Road 96 promises “thousands” of routes and non-player characters to interact with, and it sounds like this could be a game with a huge amount of replay value. I’m looking forward to trying it out for myself.

Number 9: Shredders

There have been some classic snowboarding games in years past: 1080Β° Snowboarding on the Nintendo 64 and SSX Tricky on the Xbox/PlayStation 2, just to give two examples. Shredders, which was announced at E3, looks like it’ll pick up the baton and offer a fun snowboarding experience.

Any game set in a wintry environment has to get its snow texture just right, and it looks as though Shredders has – at least based on pre-release trailers. I’m hopeful for a fun time when this lands on Game Pass in the run-up to Christmas.

Number 10: Forza Horizon 5

Forza Horizon 4 was great fun, and I’m hoping for more of the same from its sequel. The semi-arcade racing hops across the Atlantic to Mexico for this iteration, with promises of more cars, a bigger map, and diverse environments to race through. All of that sounds great!

Racing games often manage to look visually stunning, and Forza Horizon 5 is no exception. The game looks fantastic, and if it plays well too it could be a huge time-sink heading into the autumn!

So that’s it!

We’ve looked at ten television shows, films, and video games that I think will be fun as we cross into the second half of 2021. Summer is always my least-favourite season, with early sunrises making it harder to sleep than usual, annoying insects buzzing around, and heatwaves that make me wish I could afford air conditioning! But there are plenty of things to look forward to even as we roll through my least-favourite part of the year.

Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 has to be my highlight; if I could only choose one thing to be excited about it would be that! But Tokyo Vice is incredibly interesting too, a series which I think could blow up and become the next Chernobyl. Film-wise, Encanto looks great; any project with a soundtrack by Lin-Manuel Miranda is worth paying attention to! Dune I’m hopeful for, and The Green Knight could sneak in and become something more than I’m expecting. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is such an interesting and cute-looking video game, and a rare new IP in an entertainment landscape where sequels and franchises dominate.

2021 still has a lot left to offer, even though we’re already halfway through! I hope you found something here to get excited about – or maybe something you hadn’t heard of that you can add to your list.

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective owner, studio, developer, broadcaster, distributor, publisher, etc. Some promotional video game screenshots courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Five underappreciated television series

Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers may be present for some of the entries on this list.

As many television shows approach their summer break, perhaps you’re looking for something to watch while you wait for new series and seasons to debut later in the year. Late spring and summer have historically been the “off season” for prime-time television series, with the main television season running from September/October through to April/May. The rise of streaming services has gone some way to breaking that up, which is good news, but there are probably still fewer big television productions on the air at this time of year.

With that in mind, I thought it could be fun to take a look at five television series that you might’ve missed – or just not seen for a while! All five are, in my opinion, underappreciated today, even if they were big hits at the time they were originally broadcast. Some series end up living long lives even after they go off the air – these ones, despite picking up some attention, aren’t quite at that level.

We’ve got a mix of different genres today, from action and drama to horror and even a documentary. So hopefully you’ll find something worthy of your time this summer!

Number 1: Jericho (2006-2008)

Protagonist Jake Green.

Between the mid-2000s and the mid-2010s there seemed to be a lot of interest in the post-apocalyptic genre. We’d see The Walking Dead premiere in 2010, as well as Survivors, Battlestar Galactica, and films like Children of Men and Contagion. Arriving on our screens in 2006 was Jericho, a post-apocalyptic drama series about the inhabitants of small-town America as they endure the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the country.

Jericho featured some wonderful characters, including the hot-headed Jake, his level-headed brother Eric (played by Star Trek: Discovery’s Kenneth Mitchell) and father Johnston, and the enigmatic Robert. The interactions between the residents of the town – and other characters they met along the way – was really the core of the show, and Jericho dived headfirst into exploring how ordinary, everyday people would confront such a major, nationwide calamity.

One of the nuclear bombs exploding.

As always in post-apocalyptic works, some people respond better than others! Characters like protagonist Jake and mayor Johnston rose to the occasion, demonstrating the kind of selflessness and leadership necessary to help their community through the difficult times that lay ahead. Other characters descended into villainy, trying to shake down or scam the town, or violently attack people. This dichotomy, while hardly unique to Jericho, was put to screen exceptionally well.

While there was a storyline which focused on the bombings themselves – something that was explored further in the show’s short second season – for me the main draw of Jericho was its character-driven post-apocalyptic narrative, spending time with these folks as they tried to process what had happened.

Number 2: The Terror (2018-2019)

Promo image for The Terror Season 1.

The Terror could be a great show to watch in October to mark Halloween – if you can wait that long! This anthology series so far only consists of two seasons, but both were interesting in their own ways. Season 1 is definitely the better of the two, focusing on the ill-fated Franklin Expedition to the Arctic in the mid-19th Century.

Sometimes I’m a little uncomfortable with shows that take real-life people – even historical figures – and fictionalise them, and I think that will have to be the subject of a future essay! But despite that, The Terror Season 1 was an incredibly well-done piece of character-centric drama. The horror elements came into play over the course of the story, but like with classics of the monster horror genre like Jaws, the creature stalking the surviving members of Franklin’s arctic expedition was better for being largely unseen. The tension and stress that was built up over the course of ten episodes was truly riveting to watch.

George Takei in Season 2.

The second season picked up a completely different story, taking place in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War. This story focused on a vengeful spirit, and likewise did a good job of building tension, though overall it was a more horror-centric season compared to the first. Star Trek: The Original Series star George Takei, who was himself interned during the war, had a co-starring role.

There was scope to continue The Terror as an anthology series, with new stories produced under the same banner. However, the lacklustre reception to Season 2 appears to have put the show on ice – pun intended – at least for now. Even though horror is far from my favourite genre, I had a good time with both seasons, and it feels like a lot of folks missed this one when it was first broadcast.

Number 3: Star Trek: Voyager (1994-2001)

The Voyager Season 2 cast.

It wouldn’t be one of my lists without at least some Star Trek, right? I feel that Voyager tends to be overlooked by at least some in the Star Trek fandom. The Original Series kicked things off and is a classic, The Next Generation is, for many folks of my generation at least, the high-water mark of the franchise, and Deep Space Nine has a fandom of its own. Modern Star Trek has picked up a following of new and old Trekkies alike, but Voyager can feel underappreciated.

I think a big part of the reason why is that Voyager struggled to find its own identity at the height of Star Trek’s ’90s “Golden Age.” The Next Generation introduced fans to the 24th Century, and during Voyager’s run its cast were starring in feature films. Deep Space Nine was something altogether different: set on a space station with a big cast of secondary characters, and dealing with darker themes. Voyager could feel, at times, a little too close to copying The Next Generation’s formula, and thus “just another Star Trek show.”

The USS Voyager during the show’s title sequence.

That sells it short, in my view, and there’s a lot to love about Voyager. It’s certainly true that not every element worked as intended – the “one ship, two crews” idea being the biggest, but even the overall story of a journey home could feel overlooked at points. But Voyager had a wonderful cast led by a fantastic captain.

Perhaps we could entertain the argument that Voyager could have done more to stand out. But re-watching it now, more than twenty years after its finale, it’s still a wonderful series. It’s just such a shame that it hasn’t been remastered yet!

Number 4: The World At War (1973)

Title card for The World At War.

There are a huge number of World War II documentaries floating around out there, with outlets like the History Channel making more all the time. Many modern documentaries make use of fully-acted dramatic recreations and use CGI and special effects to bring history to life. By those standards, The World At War might feel out-of-date and rather stuffy. But for my money there’s no documentary as interesting.

The World At War was produced at just the right moment, and I’ll explain what I mean by that! It’s difficult – if not impossible – to make a fair and balanced documentary during or immediately after the events it covers; feelings are too raw, some of those involved have careers to consider, and for all manner of reasons, getting to the raw unvarnished truth can be impossible if done too quickly. But on the other hand, waiting too long can mean that too many of the main people involved in an event have died or become too unwell to share their recollections. The World At War was produced almost 30 years after the end of World War II – long enough for passions to have faded and for people to share their opinions honestly, but also not too long after the event.

Albert Speer, former German armaments minister and one of the documentary’s interviewees.

As such, The World At War was able to interview many significant people from World War II, including British foreign secretary (and future Prime Minister) Anthony Eden, British RAF leader Arthur Harris, German Admiral (and Hitler’s designated successor) Karl DΓΆnitz, German armaments minister Albert Speer, and a number of others. Getting these individuals on record to share their views, and to be able to see and hear them, is absolutely priceless from an historical perspective.

Beyond that, though, The World At War was incredibly well-made. With narration provided by Lawrence Olivier, plenty of footage from the era, and the aforementioned interviewees providing a direct eyewitness account to the war, it’s a unique production that aimed to be comprehensive, and a must-watch for any history buff.

Number 5: The Last Ship (2014-2018)

The USS Nathan James – the titular “last ship.”

It’s possible that, with the pandemic raging, now isn’t the best time to watch a series about the world being brought to its knees by a virus! But The Last Ship is a fun, action-packed show and something truly different in a post-apocalyptic genre that was being milked dry in the 2010s.

Some post-apocalyptic fiction uses military characters and settings, and that can be fun. But very few have a strictly naval focus, and the addition of that setting is really what makes The Last Ship so different from the likes of The Walking Dead and others. The USS Nathan James is a home base for most of the main characters, and a safe space away from the chaos engulfing the world around them. Some Star Trek fans say that the starship is like an additional character, and the Nathan James definitely fills that role in The Last Ship.

Captain Tom Chandler.

There are some fantastic character moments in what is a very tense and dramatic series. All of the main cast put in fantastic performances, and there are some villains who genuinely inspire hatred! Writing a truly nasty character whose motivations are still believable is no mean feat, yet The Last Ship managed it on more than one occasion.

Despite the dire straits the world finds itself in in The Last Ship, the series tells a positive, uplifting, and hopeful story, showing off humanity at its best as well as at its worst. This is one aspect of post-apocalyptic fiction that I really like, and The Last Ship uses the backdrop of the virus to reach for something good instead of merely revelling in showing us the bad.

So that’s it!

Did I give you any inspiration for what to watch?

We took a short look at five television shows that I think are underappreciated right now. Some failed to make much of an impact when they were first broadcast and simply fizzled out, others have been eclipsed by other productions made in the years since they went off the air. But all five are absolutely worth a watch – or a re-watch – in 2021.

I had fun putting this list together, and I hope you’ll stay tuned for more lists and other articles coming up soon! We’re almost halfway through the year, so check back at the end of the month for my look ahead to the entertainment experiences that we’ll be enjoying before 2021 is over. Until next time!

All shows mentioned above are the copyright of their respective broadcaster, studio, distributor, production company, owner, etc. Availability to stream or purchase on Blu-ray or DVD may vary by region. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Does Q age?

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the Star Trek: Picard Season 2 trailer, as well as for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager.

Following Q’s appearance in the second Star Trek: Picard Season 2 trailer, I’ve seen some discussion online about Q’s age and appearance. I don’t think this is necessarily a huge topic worth dedicating a lot of time to, but it’s also one that’s potentially interesting, and it gives us an excuse to talk about Picard Season 2, the Q Continuum, and jump into a bit of Star Trek lore, so I thought I’d chime in.

Star Trek: Picard Season 2 is being produced in 2021. John de Lancie first appeared as Q right at the beginning of Season 1 of The Next Generation in the episode Encounter at Farpoint, which was filmed in mid-1987. Over the span of 34 years… he’s got older. Mystery solved!

Q’s new look has attracted attention!

Obviously there’s more to say than that. From an in-universe point of view, Q “shouldn’t” age – or to put it more accurately, Q doesn’t need to age. The Q as a species are noncorporeal and immortal, meaning that Q doesn’t age in any manner that humans can comprehend. The Q do, however, experience the flow of time, as we learned in the Voyager Season 2 episode Death Wish. That story centred around a member of the Q Continuum who was bored of living having effectively experienced everything in existence. But we’re off-topic.

Though the Q Continuum have a different understanding of time, they do experience the passage of time and thus can, in some way, age, or at least accumulate new memories and gain more knowledge. Part of the reason Q liked to tangle with humans like Picard and Janeway was because he wanted something to do, and presumably hadn’t been able to have those experiences already. Thus the Q don’t exist outside of time or in a non-linear way like the Bajoran Prophets.

The Bajoran Prophets were said to experience time in a non-linear fashion.

All of this isn’t really relevant, though. What matters for this discussion is that Q can assume any form he chooses. He could presumably turn himself into Picard’s doppelganger, a big fat housecat, or a cloud of hot pink gas – he isn’t limited to a single form. He appears “older” in Picard Season 2 because he has chosen to appear older, either to mock Picard, empathise with him, or perhaps even to experience what it’s like to be an older humanoid if that’s an experience he hasn’t yet had.

So case closed, right? From an in-universe point of view, yes. There’s no plot hole nor problem with Q’s story simply because of John de Lancie’s appearance, and anyone trying to make that claim needs a refresher course in how the Q Continuum works! But that isn’t necessarily the end of the affair. There is one point to consider from the production side, and I find it to be an interesting one as it’s something we’re going to see more of in future as technology continues to improve. I’m talking about digital de-ageing and CGI.

John de Lancie first appeared as Q in 1987’s Encounter at Farpoint.

The 2019 Netflix film The Irishman won praise (and numerous awards) for the way it made use of digital de-ageing techniques on Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Robert De Niro, transforming them into younger versions of their characters. The use of this technology is not limited to cinema, as it was recently used in Season 2 of The Mandalorian – and no, I won’t spoil it and tell you why if you haven’t seen it yet! This technology, along with other photorealistic CGI technologies that are continually being improved, has the potential to really transform film and television productions, and it’s already possible to see a brand-new film featuring the likeness of a long-dead actor brought back with CGI – like happened with Peter Cushing’s character of Grand Moff Tarkin in the film Rogue One. It’s only a matter of time before the leading role in a new film is a CGI recreation of someone who’s passed away.

It isn’t beyond the realm of technical possibility to de-age John de Lancie for Picard Season 2. It would be an expensive investment, certainly, and one which ViacomCBS may not want to make or may not have the budget for, but technically it would have been possible. And I think this is why we’re seeing this conversation. Fans look to shows like The Mandalorian, which while not a direct competitor certainly exists in a similar space to Picard, and wonder why Star Wars gets to use fancy new technologies while Star Trek doesn’t!

Digital de-ageing was used to great effect in 2019’s The Irishman.

Star Trek has, in the past, pioneered some interesting technologies and filmmaking techniques. The Deep Space Nine Season 5 episode Trials and Tribble-ations brought to television the complicated technique of inserting actors into existing footage – something which had been seen in Forrest Gump only a couple of years earlier. I even noted in my look at Discovery’s Season 1 premiere the way the CGI artists seemed to have incorporated elements from the film Interstellar – which premiered a couple of years earlier – in their portrayal of the binary star system. So Star Trek has a track record at taking cutting-edge filmmaking techniques and bringing them to the franchise.

Perhaps digital de-ageing is still too new and thus too expensive to incorporate into the Star Trek franchise right now, and that’s absolutely fair enough. I don’t want Picard Season 2 to blow its whole special effects budget on a few scenes with Q, not if doing so comes at the expense of other set-pieces later in the story. The Irishman had a budget of over $150 million. Rogue One had a budget of around $200 million – and the CGI Grand Moff Tarkin still wasn’t quite perfect! The Mandalorian was reportedly working with a budget of around $15 million per episode, or $120 million for the second season’s eight episodes. In short, digital de-ageing is expensive and can inflate the budget of any production.

Q and Picard in Q Who from Season 2 of The Next Generation.

While The Irishman won a lot of praise, and so did The Mandalorian Season 2, in both cases critical opinion wasn’t unanimous on the de-ageing technology, with some arguing that it was a waste of money. Under those circumstances, I can understand why ViacomCBS wouldn’t want to go down the route of blowing literally millions of dollars on this technique for a secondary character. The return on investment simply may not be present.

How many people aren’t going to watch Picard Season 2 because of the way Q looks? I reckon close to zero. And how many additional viewers would the season pick up if it used the de-ageing technology and that became a talking point? That’s also got to be close to zero! People who are excited for Picard Season 2 are going to watch regardless, and those who don’t want to watch, or who dislike modern Star Trek, were always going to stay away. In that sense, these kinds of technologies are expensive luxuries for any production.

Q with Picard in the Season 2 trailer.

Some of the people who’ve been discussing this online are firmly in the anti-Trek camp, and they were never going to watch Picard Season 2 anyway. It’s sad, but some anti-Trek folks will pick up on any small detail and use it to justify their continuous criticism of the franchise. And that’s up to them, I guess. For my two cents, though, I don’t think there was much to be gained by spending a ton of money on de-ageing Q. It would’ve been interesting to see, and it could’ve become a minor talking point for the second season of the show. But other than that, there was a lot of expense for not much reward, and while it may work in other productions with higher budgets, I’d rather ViacomCBS spent their money cautiously so that we can continue to enjoy more Star Trek, rather than less Star Trek laced with expensive trappings.

There’s no in-universe reason why Q shouldn’t appear differently more than twenty years after he was last seen. He can change his appearance at will, and whether it was to make a joke of Picard having gotten older or to, in Q’s twisted way, express empathy with his old friend, the way he looks even makes sense. It could even be a minor story point in the episode in which he first appears. I don’t have a problem with it at all, and I suspect that some of those claiming it’s a “big deal” would have found other things to criticise and other reasons to dislike Picard Season 2 and modern Star Trek. As far as I’m concerned it’s case closed!

Star Trek: Picard Season 2 will be broadcast on Paramount+ in the United States and on Amazon Prime Video internationally in 2022. Season 1 is available to stream now. The Star Trek franchise – including Picard and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – miniseries review

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

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

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

Sam Wilson – a.k.a. the Falcon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastian Stan as Bucky.

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

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

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

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

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