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: PicardΒ 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 – includingΒ PicardΒ 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.

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

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

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

The Falcon in flight.

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

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

Karli was the main adversary for the duo to tackle.

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

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

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

Have we seen an unstoppable shift away from the cinema?

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

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

Will empty cinemas be full again one day?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After years in development hell, will the Halo series deliver?

Plans for a television series based on the Halo video game franchise have been kicked around for well over a decade at this point. One incarnation of the project, which languished in development hell for much of that time, even included famed director Steven Spielberg, and appeared to have a decent budget set by franchise owner Microsoft. That version of Halo never made it to screen, and despite some still images and a web miniseries in 2012, Halo remains firmly a video game franchise.

But according to Paramount+ – which is also the home of Star Trek – all that will change in 2022. As part of the advertising campaign for Paramount+ earlier this year, it was announced that the Halo series, which was originally planned to debut on American television network Showtime, will join the streaming service’s lineup. With a lot of sci-fi already on Paramount+ this seems like a good fit – at least in theory. However, after so long in development, and with production clearly suffering from some setbacks, can Halo live up to the hype that fans of the series have? And perhaps more importantly, will Halo be successful at bringing in a wider audience of viewers who are less familiar with the games?

Halo is based on an acclaimed video game series.

On the first point, production on Halo has not gone smoothly. The series was picked up for a ten-episode order, after years in pre-production, over three years ago. Filming began in 2019 in Canada, and while the pandemic has been a disruptive factor, it doesn’t seem to be the only factor in why Halo is still being worked on today. There have been behind-the-scenes changes including major script rewrites and a mid-production switch to a new showrunner, and while neither of those things necessarily spell disaster for Halo, they are hardly encouraging signs.

Sometimes when a series makes these kinds of changes, what results is better than the original version would’ve been. And we have to hope that will be the case with Halo! Still, talk of reshoots, script revisions, and so on doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, and while I’m hopeful that the series will eventually present a fun and exciting story, at least some of the information coming out of the project is ringing alarm bells.

Teaser image for Halo.

As to Halo’s broader appeal, that’s still an open question. The Halo video games are best-sellers on Xbox consoles, but until last year, when Halo: The Master Chief Collection was ported to PC, that was the only place to play the main series. Though the franchise is well-known to gamers even on other platforms, a lot of folks simply don’t have much experience with Halo, and might not be as interested in the series as a result. That being said, having any kind of pre-built following is generally a net positive for any new film or television series, as at least Paramount+ can be sure that some Halo fans will show up to give the series a try!

Sci-fi is doing well at the moment, though, with shows like The Expanse, The Mandalorian, and the reinvigorated Star Trek franchise all bringing in viewers by the millions – so there’s hope that non-fans and those interested in sci-fi in a more general sense might be tempted to check out a new, high-budget sci-fi series. With a decent marketing push, I’m sure there’ll be some interest beyond Halo’s pre-existing audience.

Halo should be able to bring in a wider audience beyond fans of the video game series.

The story of the series remains unknown beyond a simple tease of its premise, and the question of whether it will be a direct adaptation of the first game – or any other title in the series – remains open. The casting of Natascha McElhone as Dr Halsey – the creator of the Spartan project in Halo: Reach – could imply that the show plans to revisit the events of Reach. This could be a prologue, as Reach was a prequel, or it could be a significant adaptation lasting a full season.

Unlike a lot of shooters, which prioritise action and gameplay over story, the Halo games always managed to strike a good mix and had single-player campaigns that were fun, engaging, and suitably long. I’ve always felt that the Halo series – at least, the first couple of games and Reach – were far better as single-player or co-op experiences than multiplayer ones – but then that could just be my general preference for single-player gaming showing through! Regardless, Halo clearly has a lot of story and material from the games that could be adapted, and I would suggest that there are several seasons’ worth of television if the show plans to follow the story of the mainline games.

Will the new series include parts of the storyline of Halo: Reach?

One thing that will be interesting is how Halo deals with the franchise’s two enemy factions – the Covenant and the Flood. Not because the factions will be difficult to adapt from game to screen from any story point of view, but because video games (or animation in general) are able to make use of far more “alien-looking” aliens. None of Halo’s aliens are humans with a forehead or nose prosthetic – like we see often in Star Trek! They’re different shapes and sizes, and practically all of them are very inhuman. Adapting grunts, brutes, hunters, and the Flood for the screen will be a challenge, particularly if the series doesn’t have a wildly-high CGI budget!

Special effects and CGI are improving all the time, and television shows today can easily be more visually impressive than even films from fifteen or twenty years ago, especially on the CGI front. But if we’re talking about animating several major characters, as well as enemy aliens that could be present in practically every episode… well that would eat up a CGI budget pretty quickly!

The Halo games have some very unusual-looking aliens (pictured: a Grunt)
Picture Credit: Halo Wiki

Though Halo never quite broke into the top tier of sci-fi franchises along with Star Trek, Star Wars, and the like, it’s still a richly detailed setting for any television show, film, or game to explore. The idea of humanity fighting a major war against a superior alien force has been done before in many different ways on screen – the Borg in Star Trek, the alien invasion in Falling Skies, and even aspects of the Marvel cinematic universe all put different spins on the same basic concept. Though Halo doesn’t do anything radically different, it will still be a chance for the franchise to put its own stamp on the “evil aliens” narrative.

Though I do have some concerns based on what I’ve heard about Halo’s rocky development and production, I’m cautiously optimistic for what the series could bring to the table. There’s a lot of lore and story to adapt, and even if the show doesn’t intend to be a direct adaptation of any of the stories seen in the Halo games, the universe that those games created is a potentially very interesting setting for the new show to play with. Hopefully, when it debuts on Paramount+ next year, we’ll be in for at the very least an interesting, engaging, and action-packed show.

A promotional screenshot for 2004’s Halo 2.

Adaptations of video games have generally been poorly-received, but the late 2010s seemed to see an explosion of video game spin-offs. There’s the Uncharted film, a television series based on The Last Of Us, a show based on the Fallout games, and even Minecraft: The Movie. Hopefully some or all of these will be better than the likes of Doom and Super Mario Bros. – though the latter film is one of those “so bad it’s actually good” titles that’s fun to watch for a laugh!

So Halo is in good company at the moment! I’m looking forward to it, and at the very least it’ll be interesting to see the various factions and settings brought out of the video game realm into wholly new territory. Whether it’ll be as enjoyable to watch Halo as it is to play the games… well that’s an open question. But I’m curious to find out.

Halo will be broadcast on Paramount+ in 2022 in the United States, Australia, and other countries and territories where the platform is available. Further international distribution has not yet been announced. The Halo franchise is the copyright of Microsoft and 343 Industries, and Halo (the series) is further the copyright of Amblin Television, Showtime, and ViacomCBS. Some screenshots used above courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Amazon’s Wheel of Time series – will it work?

A few months ago I took a brief look at Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings series, and that show has been getting a lot of attention, both for its Middle-earth setting and due to inescapable comparisons to Game of Thrones. But Amazon has another high fantasy series in the pipeline, and this second series hasn’t been getting quite as much interest – at least, not yet.

The Wheel of Time is a fifteen-novel epic; a magnum opus totalling almost four-and-a-half million words. It was written by Robert Jordan, with the final three novels completed by Brandon Sanderson following Jordan’s death in 2007, and is now complete. There has been a previous attempt to adapt the series for television, with a pilot being filmed in 2014-15, but it was generally regarded as a badly-made piece of TV so the series was not picked up.

Rosamund Pike as Moiraine in a short teaser.

It seems as though Amazon – and former CEO Jeff Bezos in particular – have been chasing their own version of Game of Thrones almost since that show premiered in 2011. Greenlighting two major television projects simultaneously is both a bold, expensive move, as well as one that could spell doom for one of the shows if there’s a clear preference from viewers.

Lord of the Rings on Prime – or whatever its final title will be – was a massively expensive commitment from Amazon, with the rights alone reportedly setting the company back $250 million. That’s before even a single frame had been shot, a single prop created, or an individual actor hired. The rights to The Wheel of Time were positively cheap in comparison!

A blade of some kind seen in a separate teaser.

Game of Thrones proved hands-down that a television show in the high fantasy genre based on a series of books that, let’s face it, most people will never read can be a resounding success, and I would assume that The Wheel of Time is about as well-known today as A Song of Ice and Fire was circa 2010-11. In short, there’s no reason I can see why Amazon’s adaptation of The Wheel of Time should fail to find an audience, particularly if the series is well-marketed.

Amazon Prime Video, which will be the series’ home when it’s ready to be broadcast, exists in an unusual space for a streaming platform. It’s tied to Amazon Prime, which offers a range of other benefits alongside the video streaming platform, notably free next-day or two-day delivery on many items Amazon sells on their main website. Unlike Netflix and Disney+, Amazon’s diverse business model is less reliant on streaming, and thus the success of any individual series is less important than it would be for a traditional broadcaster. At least in theory!

The Wheel of Time will be available to stream via Amazon Prime Video… when it’s ready!

I’ve read the first couple of novels in The Wheel of Time series, but it was at least twenty years ago and I honestly can’t remember much about the specifics of the story. I do recall the disappointment at not being able to afford the next book in the series after finishing the second, though, but for some reason I just never got around to finishing the series even when I subsequently had the means to do so.

In recent years I’ve debated going back to The Wheel of Time, but in some ways a very long series like this feels like a huge commitment, and spending the money on a fifteen-book set is something that, as someone on a low income, I have never been able to justify to myself. I enjoyed the first couple of books when I read them, though, and from my personal perspective, Amazon’s adaptation provides an opportunity to revisit the world of The Wheel of Time.

Fifteen novels comprise The Wheel of Time.

Comparisons to Game of Thrones keep cropping up, and not only is that inevitable given the nature of the project, I think it’s what Amazon really wants audiences to keep in mind. But Game of Thrones had an ending that was, according to most of the show’s fans, disappointing, and as The Wheel of TIme is now in production, I admit to feeling a slight sense of trepidation or caution at the prospect of history repeating itself.

While Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season had a number of issues with its narrative, pacing, and even production goofs, the fundamental problem – in my opinion – was that it was cut short. There was the potential for Seasons 7 and 8 to be spun out into at least twice as many episodes across twice as many seasons, with writer George R R Martin on record saying he was hoping to see the show run until at least its tenth season. And this is where my concern with The Wheel of Time comes into play.

Game of Thrones is a natural comparison for a series like The Wheel of Time.

Fifteen books means there’s a lot of story to adapt, and even if clever cuts are made to characters and whole narrative arcs, the show will still have an awful lot going on – and the potential to run for as many seasons as there are books: fifteen. But will Amazon let the show run that long? At time of writing, only a single season is confirmed, adapting the first novel in the series. If I recall correctly, the first book – The Eye of the World – was by no means conclusive; there will be many storylines unresolved by just the end of Season 1.

As we’ve recently been discussing, some television shows can outstay their welcomes and run too long. Fifteen seasons would mean that Amazon’s adaptation of The Wheel of Time would run longer than 99% of all television shows, catching up to the likes of ER, for example. At one season per year, the series would not conclude until at least 2036 – and I’m just not convinced yet that there’s that much of an appetite for The Wheel of Time.

The Wheel of Time could run for a long time if each book is adapted to one season of television!

So here’s where we are, as I see it: this is an incredibly ambitious project. It’s far more ambitious than Game of Thrones, which only had five books (of a planned six) and some 1.5 million words to adapt, and certainly it’s more ambitious than its sister project, Lord of the Rings on Prime. Amazon’s Lord of the Rings adaptation is based in part on Tolkien’s works – The Silmarillion in particular. But the nature of that book means there’s a lot of leeway for the show’s producers and writers. They could choose to construct a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and run it over the (allegedly) planned five seasons in a way that would feel natural.

In contrast, The Wheel of Time either has to run for fifteen seasons, or condense multiple books into a handful of episodes, as Game of Thrones essentially did in its latter seasons. Both of those options have potential drawbacks.

As we’ve also recently talked about, shows that are cancelled before concluding their stories are incredibly disappointing! And I would hate to see The Wheel of Time end up in that situation. The story of the series – at least, based on my recollection – is engaging and entertaining, with the potential for a television adaptation with a sufficient budget to even eclipse Game of Thrones. That’s what I’d dearly love to see – a fantastic piece of fantasy television. I’m optimistic for The Wheel of Time, but still only cautiously so.

The Wheel of Time on Prime (working title) is currently in production and will premiere on Amazon Prime Video in the future. The Wheel of Time on Prime is the copyright of Amazon Studios. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Five television shows that ended too soon

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

A few days ago I put together a list of five television shows that ran too long. This is the counterpoint to that list, because today we’re going to look at five television shows that ended too soon! As I said last time, I’d always rather be in a position of lamenting a show cancelled before its time rather than feeling a series dragged on too long and ran out of fun material. As we’ve recently seen with Game of Thrones, a bad ending can sour audiences on the entire show, and even shows that started off great can be a chore to go back and re-watch if they got worse as time went on.

So speaking for myself, I find it better for a show to end too soon, while it’s still good, rather than run and run until storylines are exhausted and the show becomes a shadow of its former self. But that doesn’t mean seeing a favourite series unceremoniously cancelled is a nice feeling! All of the shows we’re going to look at today had potential to be so much more than they were, if only they’d been able to run for at least one more season apiece.

Game of Thrones didn’t drag on too long, but its disappointing ending means going back to re-watch it isn’t something I’m keen on at the moment.

There can be different reasons why it feels like a show ended before its time. In some cases it’s obvious – a major storyline unresolved, mysteries still unexplained, and a narrative unfinished. Some of the shows on this list fall into exactly this category. But other shows conclude having generally wrapped up most of their narrative elements and after resolving character arcs and points of drama, yet still the feeling of wanting more can persist.

As always, this is just one person’s opinion. If you disagree, or if you think these shows ended at just the right time, that’s great! We’re all entitled to our opinions about entertainment and media, and if my opinion doesn’t align with yours this time, that’s okay! So without further ado, let’s take a look at my picks.

Number 1: Terra Nova (2011)

Promo poster for Terra Nova.

Terra Nova began with a very interesting premise – the discovery of a wormhole-like singularity that allowed humans to travel to the distant past and establish a colony. The 22nd Century, when part of the series is set, was nightmarish and dystopian due to overpopulation and pollution, which is what drove protagonist Jim and his family to make the dangerous journey back in time.

I mentioned Terra Nova last time, and it was only when I thought about the show again – ten years after its cancellation – that I considered putting together this list! As with other entries on the list, lower than expected viewing figures almost certainly explains the show’s premature cancellation. Perhaps we can blame that on the shift in viewing platforms in the early 2010s away from broadcast television toward streaming, but even so perhaps Terra Nova’s premise was just too niche for mainstream audiences.

Stephen Lang as Nathaniel Taylor in Terra Nova.

What I liked about Terra Nova is the creativity in its premise. Not only was there some kind of conspiracy tied to the faction operating the time-wormhole, but events at the colony were unpredictable as well, with a renegade faction battling the established leadership. In addition, Terra Nova introduced new fictional species of dinosaurs to its prehistoric setting, something that the Jurassic Park franchise wouldn’t do for another four years!

Terra Nova ended on a very strange and tantalising cliffhanger, but with its cancellation, that story was never resolved on screen. In a half-hearted effort to reach out to fans of the series, the DVD box set came with a “make your own motion comic” feature, allowing fans to download some artwork to make up their own continuations – but by all accounts, the motion comic was pretty limited in its options. Thus the Terra Nova story ended in disappointing fashion, despite showing promise. It’s worth a watch if you’re interested in sci-fi and dinosaurs, but if you do sit down to watch the only season of the show, just be aware that its story was never finished.

Number 2: Space Precinct (1994-95)

The opening title of Space Precinct.

Gerry Anderson is renowned among a certain subset of sci-fi fans – most of whom are probably British – for creating shows like Space: 1999, as well as “supermarionation” (i.e. filmed with puppets) kids shows Thunderbirds, Stingray, and Captain Scarlet – all of which were mainstays of my childhood television viewing! In the mid-1980s, Anderson began working on the concept that would eventually become Space Precinct – a police procedural show set in space.

Space Precinct is set in the year 2040 – which means, in 2021, that we’re closer to when it was set than when it was made! Just in case you didn’t feel old enough already! Main protagonist Patrick Brogan transfers from the New York City police force to a role in the Demeter City police on the planet Altor – a kind of “space ’90s New York” complete with rampant crime and corruption!

Captain Podly – a Creon. The design of both the aliens and costumes in Space Precinct were unique and fun, and while arguably “of their time” I think they still look pretty good today!

What I appreciated about Space Precinct when I watched it in the mid-1990s was the blend of sci-fi and policing. Almost every episode could have been, with a few tweaks and a few less aliens, part of a modern-day police procedural, and that gave it a unique selling point. The show had some wonderful alien designs, realised with physical prosthetics for the most part, and the way aliens like the Creons and Tarns were created could have become iconic.

Sadly, Space Precinct only got a single season before it was cancelled – allegedly due to poor viewing figures in the United States. Sky and the BBC, who broadcast the show here in the UK, invested a decent amount of money in the project, and I remember collecting a number of action figures based on the main characters – though goodness only knows where they are now! It’s still possible to pick up the series on DVD, and if you can find it it’s well worth a watch, and easily holds up when compared to other early/mid-90s sci-fi fare. Oh, and it has a great theme tune!

Number 3: Firefly (2002)

Promo photo showing the cast of Firefly.

No list of prematurely cancelled shows would be complete without Firefly. A truly bizarre decision on the part of schedulers and executives at American broadcaster Fox saw Firefly’s first few episodes aired out of order. Though the show does have episodic elements, some storylines work far better when viewed in the correct order, and that may be one reason why the show failed to connect with audiences first time around. Rather than give it time or make another attempt, Fox cancelled the series before the first season had even concluded.

Firefly was a fascinating mix of sci-fi and western, with a far greater western emphasis than the likes of Star Trek and Star Wars. It had a fun cast of characters and the excellent writing was backed up by some beautiful world-building, leading to the world of Firefly feeling genuinely real in a way few franchises ever manage to pull off. It was such a shame that it didn’t get a fair shake from its broadcaster and original audience.

Nathan Fillion as Mal in Firefly.

I only encountered the series a couple of years after it went off the air, when a colleague recommended it to me. Like many folks, I discovered Firefly thanks to the DVD box set, and even though I knew going in that the series had no ending, it was still disappointing to reach the final episode and have to leave Mal and his crew with no conclusion.

As you may know, however, a fan campaign succeeded in reviving Firefly for a one-off film. 2005’s Serenity wrapped up the story in a bittersweet way. Considering the original plan was for a seven-season run, one season plus a feature film still leaves me feeling short-changed, even if the film was a solid conclusion to the original characters’ stories. So far, the world of Firefly has never been revisited – but I truly feel there’s scope to do so. A spin-off or a show set in the same universe would make for a wonderful addition to Disney+ – and I believe that The Walt Disney Company will own the rights to the show following their acquisition of large parts of Fox. Will it ever happen? Doubtful, but a fan can dream!

Number 4: Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-05)

The Season 1 cast of Star Trek: Enterprise.

It wouldn’t be one of my lists without at least some Star Trek, right? Unlike other entries on this list, Enterprise managed a decent run at four full seasons and just shy of 100 episodes. And also unlike the other shows we’ve talked about, I actually fully understand the decision to cancel it. By 2005, Star Trek had been in continuous production for almost twenty years – longer, if we trace production back to the films as well as television shows. And there was a sense that audiences were beginning to get burnt out after four television shows and six films.

Enterprise had been threatened with cancellation going back to at least its second season, but had managed to survive two prior cancellation scares. However, its fourth season would turn out to be its last. Because we’ve subsequently learned about potential storylines for the unproduced Season 5, I think Enterprise warrants a place on this list – because it sounds like a season of television I’d have loved to see!

The NX-01 Enterprise.

According to some of the production staff who have been interviewed in the years since Enterprise went off the air, Season 5 would have focused on the Earth-Romulan War, a conflict first mentioned in The Original Series. And if we look at some of the events in Season 4, notably the trio of episodes The Forge, Awakening, and Kir’Shara, we can see what could be argued to be the beginnings of a Romulan storyline in the show.

I’ve explained previously that I wasn’t a huge Enterprise fan during its original run, only tuning in sporadically. But despite that, Enterprise’s cancellation struck a raw nerve in 2005, and it seemed for a time that Star Trek was dead and never coming back. Ultimately, though, Enterprise being cancelled led to a reimagining of the franchise, culminating in Discovery, Picard, and the other shows and films we’re enjoying currently. So while I can say I regret not seeing this unproduced Earth-Romulan War story in Season 5 of Enterprise, things worked out alright for Star Trek in the end!

Number 5: FlashForward (2009-10)

Title card for FlashForward.

FlashForward had a unique premise, one which took sci-fi and time travel concepts but mixed them up in a way I had never really seen before. The basic premise was that practically everyone on Earth lost consciousness at the same moment and experienced the titular “flash forward” – with everyone seeing what appeared to be a vision of their lives around six months in the future. The show follows a team of FBI agents as they try to unravel the mysterious event.

I’d really never seen anything quite like FlashForward, which I watched at the behest of my partner at the time. We got very into the series when it was running, and we were both disappointed to learn it had been cancelled. The first and only season of the show ended on a cliffhanger, with a second “flash forward” event taking place.

Peyton List in FlashForward.

FlashForward had a great cast, including John Cho (Sulu in the Kelvin films) and Peyton List (Rizzo in Picard Season 1). It was a well-financed production with great special effects and set designs to compliment its exciting premise, and felt like a show that was headed for success. At the time, around the turn of the last decade, shows like Fringe and Lost were showing that sci-fi shows with different and unique settings could be a success – but sadly, FlashForward was only given a single season.

Initially a ratings hit for network ABC, FlashForward saw a big drop in viewership as its season rolled on, and its this decline that led to it being axed. Unfortunately the story was already set and the final episodes had already been filmed, meaning there was no way to conclude the story.

So that’s it. Five shows that ended too soon to stand in contrast to the other list of five shows that outstayed their welcome!

Season 33 of The Simpsons is coming up later this year, while most of the shows listed above only managed one season. Life is so unfair sometimes!

Though it’s always better for a series to end on a high note leaving fans clamouring for more, rather than running too long and seeing a decline, the entries on this list were cancelled prematurely. Television executives always seem very quick to pull the plug on an underperforming series, even when there seems to be genuine potential for a revival.

Most television shows take at least a full season to establish themselves. It takes time for actors to get to know their co-stars, for audiences to familiarise themselves with aspects of the story and setting, and thus it’s often not until a show hits its second or even third season before everything falls into place. Some executives don’t allow that to happen, which is a shame. And sadly we’ve begun to see this attitude spill over to streaming services, with Netflix in particular killing off several of its own shows while they were still very popular with fans. Hopefully it’s a trend that will decline as audiences find new ways to access entertainment and media – but I’m not holding my breath!

I enjoyed all of the shows on this list, but sadly that enjoyment is tinged with at least a little disappointment at the stories we never got to see, or the mysteries left unresolved. While I can heartily recommend all five, that recommendation has to come with a caveat as a result of their being cut short.

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective network, broadcaster, studio, and/or distributor. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Five television shows that ran too long

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

When writers and producers sit down to craft a new television series, usually they can’t plan for anything beyond a single season. Most television shows are greenlit for one season at a time, and renewed for one additional season at a time. Forward planning for events that may take place in Season 6 of a show are usually not at the forefront of creators’ minds when sketching out the storyline of Season 1.

And this approach makes a lot of sense. A series like Terra Nova clearly had a multi-season story planned, as Season 1 ended on a cliffhanger, but cancellation meant that the remaining story was never put to screen. That’s frustrating as a viewer – and yes, even though it’s been ten years I’m still sore about Terra Nova!

Terra Nova had the opposite problem to the titles on this list!

But one drawback to this season-by-season approach to writing and storytelling comes when a show is renewed. If writers have managed to successfully wrap up a season-long storyline and character arcs, what comes next? This is something I’ve termed “the Disney sequel problem,” because it’s comparable to a situation many sequels to successful Disney films find themselves in. What comes next after “happily ever after?” Or in this case, what comes next after a finished story?

Some shows just run and run and run, continuing long after they’ve completely exhausted their potential stories and original purpose. These shows tend to morph into something different – even unrecognisable – from their original incarnation. Even though the characters may remain the same, storylines change and often get wilder and more bizarre. Though some shows retain a large following even as they change, in many cases fans of the first couple of seasons realise that the changes have been for the worse.

The Simpsons is now approaching its 33rd Season…

Television, like any entertainment or artistic medium, has its limits. No single story can run and run forever, and no set of characters can endure season upon season of increasingly outlandish storylines. Most television shows, like most stories across other forms of media, have natural lifespans. In some cases that could be a single season, in others it could be ten seasons. It varies a lot and depends on the show. But practically every show eventually hits that wall – and some try to sidestep it and keep going.

Today we’re going to look at five examples of television shows that should’ve ended far sooner than they did. As I always say, this is just the opinion of one person. If you like a show on this list and enjoyed its later seasons, that’s okay. I’m not trying to claim these shows or their latter episodes are somehow objectively bad. Simply put, I feel they outstayed their welcome.

Number 1: The Simpsons (1989-present)

The Simpson family.

Given The Simpsons’ place in popular culture and the show’s enormous influence over satire and comedy, this one is painful to admit. But The Simpsons, which will begin broadcasting its 33rd season later this year, has clearly and demonstrably gone on too long. Its original premise – satirising family-oriented 1980s sitcoms and taking a comedic yet biting look at America as the 1990s dawned – has entirely evaporated, and while there have been creditable attempts in recent seasons to recapture parts of that, the show has largely forgotten its roots.

A few weeks ago I picked out twelve of my favourite episodes – and as I was composing that article I came to realise pretty quickly that all of my favourites were within the first eight or nine seasons. That was when The Simpsons was at its peak, and while the show is still running and clearly has an audience, even Simpsons fans admit that it’s gone downhill.

The Simpsons’ decline set in sometime around the year 2000.

One of the most-cited differences between The Simpsons in its ’90s heyday and the series today is the characterisation of Homer. Originally he was presented as a hard-working everyman, down on his luck and with undeniable flaws, but nevertheless someone viewers could root for. In his first standalone appearance in the Season 1 premiere Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, Homer’s financial problem and desire to do right by his family as Christmas approaches elicits genuine sympathy; an oddly timeless story. But by later seasons, spurred on by a desire or need to continue a trend of increasingly outrageous storylines, Homer has been turned into a character that’s half-clown, half-jerk, exaggerating his worst traits and becoming a parody of himself.

Unlike some other entries on this list, The Simpsons is episodic in nature. It didn’t have a single overarching story to tell that was exhausted at some point in its run. Instead it had an underlying premise, and a desire to show Americans a satirical mirror of their society. But since the show itself became part of American popular culture, and inspired not only a whole genre of adult-oriented animation but also a whole style of comedy, its ability to effectively do that waned. And as writers exhausted plausible storylines to put a comedic spin on, all that remained was to take the show to extremes – pushing the boat out ever further to try to keep it funny.

Number 2: Supernatural (2005-2020)

Brothers Sam and Dean Winchester in Season 15 of Supernatural.

Supernatural is the show that originally inspired this article! If you’re a regular around here you might remember it from last year’s awards – where it “won” the award for worst television series of the year. I stand by what I said then: Supernatural had become the king of running too long.

When Supernatural premiered in 2005 it had a wonderfully innovative premise. It was a great blend of episodic, monster-of-the-week television with season-long character arcs and stories that rumbled away in the background, particularly the disappearance of the boys’ father and their quest to hunt the Yellow-Eyed Demon. As Sam and Dean travelled the United States hunting an array of new and old monsters and horror movie villains, there was a lot to love.

Sam and Dean Winchester in the pilot episode.

But Supernatural exhausted its original storylines sometime before 2010, certainly by the fifth season or so. Not only that, but having faced down examples of most horror staples – ghosts, demons, werewolves, and the like – the writers and producers were running out of material. The show moved away from its original semi-episodic format toward a more serialised approach, and while there’s nothing wrong with serialised storytelling, combined with the satisfying conclusion of Supernatural’s original storylines and the exhausting of most monster-of-the-week stereotypes, there was nothing left for the show to explore.

For me, one episode more than any other cements Supernatural’s decline: Season 6’s The French Mistake. It was at this moment that the show lost all semblance of seriousness and descended into the fan-servicey mess that became the hallmark of its latter seasons. The transformation of main characters Sam and Dean from two relatively ordinary guys thrust into a world of demon-hunting into invincible Biblical warriors anointed by God and the angels was catastrophic, but that episode was the icing on the cake.

Number 3: Lost (2004-2010)

Title card for Lost.

Lost is absolutely one of the best shows of the 2000s, and unlike other entries on this list which ran for a decade or longer, its six seasons actually seem rather modest in comparison. But Lost nevertheless exhibits many of the same issues, including exhausting its original premise and storylines, and putting its characters in increasingly weird and wacky situations to try to keep the magic going.

I mentioned at the beginning that many television shows are written season by season, without much thought for how or when they will end. Lost is a case in point. JJ Abrams, who created the show, has become notorious for writing half a story – a beginning without any idea of how it will end. In fact, the so-called “mystery box” has become a hallmark of the way Abrams creates his stories. In the case of Lost – as with the Star Wars sequel trilogy that Abrams also helmed parts of – the weaknesses of this approach become apparent.

Lost started strongly and encouraged fans to theorise and speculate – but the writers and producers hadn’t planned any answers to the questions they set up.

There were mysteries in Season 1 of Lost. What caused the plane to crash? How were they so far off-course? What’s with the weird smoke monster? What’s inside the hatch? Who is Kate, and what did she do? But fundamentally it was a character-driven story with a strong focus on the need for survival. The characters found themselves in a hostile environment with no immediate hope of escape, and much of the drama came from that premise.

Lost had become unrecognisable by Season 6, with a narrative that involved worldwide conspiracies, time travel, an island that could literally move, and so on. For fans who had become engrossed in its world, perhaps some of these answers were satisfying. For many, though, they were not, and what started as a fun and mysterious show lost its way when the creative team found themselves boxed in narratively, unable to find a satisfying way to conclude various story elements.

Number 4: 12 Monkeys (2015-2018)

12 Monkeys protagonist James Cole in Season 1.

As with Lost above, 12 Monkeys doesn’t seem to have enough seasons to fit the bill as a show that outstayed its welcome. But it absolutely did! The series began with a similar premise to the 1995 film of the same name – a man from the future must travel back in time to the modern day in order to prevent the release of a biological weapon that would decimate humankind.

That premise sounds amazing, and more than a little timely given the year we’ve just had! Though time travel stories are seldom my favourite for a number of reasons, 12 Monkeys Season 1 absolutely nailed it. But then they ran out of story, and what was chosen to replace it simply did not work. Things went downhill fast.

12 Monkeys did time travel very well… in its first season.

The plot became overly complicated when the original premise – stopping the release of the virus – was played out. What replaced it was a convoluted and frankly just plain dumb story about an international conspiracy to “stop time itself.” Yeah. I know.

Though the characters remained the same, the lines they were spewing now made no sense, and the show had to create increasingly stupid reasons for both using the time machine – its central piece of tech – and for including characters from the modern day. With the focus having switched to battling this weird army of time-hating people, the entire concept of the series was lost.

Number 5: The Walking Dead (2010-present)

An iconic image from Season 1 of The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead’s main problem is that the entire show is built around a very simple premise: zombies. When the zombies stop being frightening, and when the show’s original cast has been decimated by season after season of “shocking” deaths, there’s nothing left to do. That should be game over – and The Walking Dead managed about three seasons before that feeling set in.

Unfortunately, despite hitting the wall, The Walking Dead kept going. The zombies stopped being the show’s focus and were relegated to a background role, with the impetus switching to new groups of characters who, for no other reason than “because plot,” would turn out to have a burning hatred of protagonist Rick Grimes and his group.

Sonequa Martin-Green (Star Trek: Discovery’s Michael Burnham) appeared in The Walking Dead.

After the show found success with the Governor as its main human antagonist in Season 3, the writers evidently became desperate to recapture that feeling, throwing villain after villain at Rick. That’s all the Terminus cannibals were, that’s all Negan was, and now this new villain Alpha is in the same mould.

The Walking Dead, along with Game of Thrones which was around at the same time in the early 2010s, helped to pioneer the idea of a “disposable” main cast – where viewers were kept on the edge of their seats not sure if all of their favourites would survive to the end. The problem is that the end should’ve come far sooner. Spin-offs like Fear the Walking Dead and World Beyond can pick up the baton for the franchise, telling new stories with new characters. But the main series should’ve ended a long time ago.

So that’s it. Five shows that ran too long – or are still running too long!

Usually this happens for “business reasons” – namely money. Investing in the creation of a new television series is expensive, and when a show is a hit, executives and producers naturally want to keep going, bringing in more money and making use of existing sets, props, and characters. However, this can come at the expense of artistic integrity and good storytelling, with shows forced to make major changes to compensate for either concluding their original story or simply running out of ideas.

We didn’t even mention The Big Bang Theory…

None of the shows on the list above were bad. I actively enjoyed all five in their early days. But somewhere along the way their original intentions got lost, and the transformed series that resulted became less enjoyable. In some cases this can happen within a season or two, especially if the original creative team tell what is essentially a one-and-done story across one season of television. But other shows have a slower, more gradual decline over the course of several years, with concepts that were interesting and exciting in Season 1 decaying and becoming clichΓ©d tropes by Season 5. There are different ways this decline can manifest, just as there are different lifespans for different shows.

As a fan, in every single case I’d rather be writing an article saying “this show was cancelled too soon!” instead of “this show should’ve been cancelled already.” I’d rather lament what we could’ve seen had a show ran for just one more season than feel it declined because it went on too long. Perhaps that seems paradoxical, but sometimes, as the saying goes, “less is more.”

Regardless of what I may think, this phenomenon isn’t going away any time soon. Television producers will always look to continue successful projects where they can and cancel those that don’t bring in enough viewers and enough money. That’s just the way the industry works!

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective network, broadcaster, studio, and/or distributor. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

My encounter with a royal broadcast, and how Prince Philip’s funeral will be very different

In 2011 I found myself in London working with a client. It just so happened that, during the month I was in the capital, the wedding of Prince William was set to take place. Royal events like weddings and funerals are broadcast live in the UK and around the world, and doing so is an incredible logistical feat that takes a huge amount of planning. In this current coronavirus moment, with restrictions and limitations in place, the upcoming funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh will be quite different to the royal event I – in a very minor way – attended a decade ago.

Although my health was in decline by 2011, at that point I was still working full-time and was still able to travel in relative comfort, so when a client I’d worked with for several years asked me to spend some time in their office with their marketing team I happily agreed and travelled to London. All expenses paid, I thought, so why not? I stayed in a small room in a shared apartment in King’s Cross, from where my client’s office was a short commute. It was, for someone who grew up in a small rural community, a change of scene! Though I’d lived in cities before, I never really got used to the dense crowds of places like London – but if I thought my commute or my lunch break were busy, that was nothing compared to the royal wedding!

Crowds at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011.

After several years of dating, Prince William and Kate Middleton – now Kate, Duchess of Cambridge – announced their engagement in November 2010, and planning for the wedding kicked into high gear not only for the royal family, but for media companies as well. Though Prince Charles’ second wedding to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall in 2005 had attracted a modest television audience of around 7 million in the UK, his first wedding to Diana, Princess of Wales in 1981 picked up an audience of over 28 million in the UK – and some 750 million worldwide. Broadcasters certainly expected William and Kate to manage something similar!

A huge event was planned, and the royal family were accommodating of the media, despite decades of mistrust between them, setting up cameras and microphones to capture every single moment of the day. Screens were set up in public parks in London – where I watched the ceremony – and all around the UK, and people lined the routes waving flags and joining in. After sitting to watch the wedding in Green Park – a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace – I found myself on the Mall in time for the newlyweds’ appearance on the palace balcony, as well as to see a flyover by the Royal Air Force.

My view of Buckingham Palace from the Mall in 2011.

There were an estimated one million people on the Mall along with me, and scenes of the event were broadcast to an audience of some 30+ million in the UK, and well over 160 million worldwide. It’s always been a source of interest to be able to tell people that “I was there” – even though I’m no royalist and wouldn’t have attended on purpose, it’s certainly something interesting to have participated in while I was able. An event.

Royal funerals, too, tend to draw significant audiences, and in light of the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh last week, it’s these events we should really be looking to for points of comparison.

The funerals of both the Queen Mother in 2002 and Princess Diana in 1997 are the largest royal funerals of note in the last few years, and the best comparisons to what we could expect to see on Saturday. The Queen Mother’s 2002 funeral picked up an audience of over 10 million in the UK – but this is barely a third of the 32 million who tuned in to see the funeral of Princess Diana.

The funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales was a massive television event in 1997.

Royal weddings, like the one mentioned above, are meticulously planned months ahead of time, with every detail ironed out. With eight days between the announcement of Prince Philip’s death and the funeral, you’d think that putting together an event like this, with plans to televise it worldwide, would be impossible. But that’s far from the truth.

The reality is that the royal family and broadcasters have been working on funeral plans for Prince Philip and other senior royals for decades. Prince Philip himself is said to have worked on his own funeral arrangements, crafting an event that would cause, in his words, “minimal fuss,” and even designing his own Land Rover-based hearse! Perhaps he would have appreciated the scaled-back nature of this event, caused by the pandemic, which means a maximum of thirty people can be in attendance!

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1921-2021)
Picture Credit: Allan warren, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A lot has changed since even the wedding of William and Kate ten years ago in terms of the way audiences consume media, and I will be genuinely interested to see whether the viewing figures for Prince Philip’s funeral come close to matching other comparable royal events. The move away from broadcast television to on-demand streaming has changed the way many people, especially younger people, interact with what they watch.

In a growing number of cases, people are opting not to watch any broadcast television, replacing it with subscriptions to streaming platforms, and even eschewing the traditional television set in favour of smaller, portable screens like phones and tablets. While that wouldn’t be my preference for how to watch, well, anything, I can’t deny that it’s a trend that doesn’t seem to be slowing down. How many of these people will step away from Netflix, YouTube, or Paramount+ to tune into a royal funeral, I wonder, and how many will simply opt to watch highlights later?

How many people will watch the funeral live, and how many will simply stream the highlights afterwards?

Royal events have been huge draws for television audiences going back to at least the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. My father can vividly remember crowding around a brand-new television to watch the queen’s coronation, and while in 2021 we shouldn’t be crowding around anything, there is still power in royalty for television broadcasters. One need only look to the success of Netflix’s The Crown as evidence.

So it will be a point of interest to learn how many viewers turn up for Prince Philip on Saturday. Broadcasters will have had a number of plans in place for different events, different crowd sizes, and even different weather conditions. April weather in the UK can be unpredictable – in the last couple of days it snowed, coming after several days of unseasonably warm weather! So you never know what you might be up against, something broadcasters will have to work around.

The Crown on Netflix shows how big of a draw anything involving the royal family can be.

In 2011, to get back to my own experience, while exploring the Mall in the days before the wedding, and on the day itself, I came upon a temporary structure that had been built opposite Buckingham Palace especially to house a number of different domestic and international broadcasters. It was an odd shade of green and appeared to have been built largely from wood and scaffolding! Regardless, it did its job and quite a few broadcasters – including big ones like the BBC – appear to have made use of it.

Whether such a structure will be able to be built in time for the funeral is not clear, nor are whether restrictions in place because of coronavirus would even allow for so many people to work in such close proximity. The pandemic has disrupted so many events and plans, and Prince Philip’s funeral is no exception.

The temporary media structure in 2011.

It’s a huge logistical effort to televise an event of this nature, and given the pandemic and associated restrictions, it will be a herculean task to get everything ready in time so that the funeral and its broadcast go smoothly. But plans have been in place for a long time – just as there are plans for other big funerals and events – so all the broadcasters have to do at this point is put them into place efficiently.

On a personal note, as someone who grew up in the UK with family members who were generally pro-monarchy, the passing of Prince Philip is a noteworthy event. We shouldn’t taint that nor sidestep it with criticisms of the man or the institution; there will be time in future to discuss both monarchy as a concept and the present royal family, but now is not the right moment. Suffice to say it will be a significant event for the country, despite the unusual backdrop of pandemic-related restrictions. And I daresay I will tune in on Saturday to watch at least part of the service.

The funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1921-2021) is due to take place on Saturday, the 17th of April 2021. The event will be televised in the UK and around the world. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

This Sceptred Isle – is it in poor taste?

Well that didn’t take long! The first major television drama about the coronavirus pandemic was announced recently, and is currently scheduled to debut on Sky here in the UK next year. But surely, with coronavirus still raging as the series is being filmed, it’s far too soon for this kind of show. Isn’t it?

This Sceptred Isle is billed as an examination of the UK government’s response to the “first few months” of the pandemic. And in many ways, such a story is worth telling. The UK government did not handle the pandemic’s arrival particularly well, being slow to put measures into place that were already being taken by other countries, in particular Italy. As a result, the UK’s per capita death toll has been higher than many comparable western nations, and despite the success of the vaccine rollout – I got my first dose of the vaccine last month – that remains a stain on the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Promo picture of Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in This Sceptred Isle.
Picture Credit: Sky TV.

But something about This Sceptred Isle just rubs me the wrong way. It feels like it’s in incredibly poor taste to create a fictionalised drama series based on something so significant and that has cost so many lives while it’s quite literally still raging on. Not to mention that planning for the series, writing scripts, hiring producers, and so on must’ve been going on for months already – pre-production on any show takes time, and for This Sceptred Isle to have begun filming at the end of February it must’ve been conceived at the latest by last summer, with plots and storylines already prepared.

What I fear will be the case is that the series will have an axe to grind, and rather than making any real attempt to faithfully retell the events of the early weeks and months of the UK’s pandemic response, it will instead descend into a farcical and utterly fictitious portrayal of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government. I’m not a political person, and the electoral fortunes of Mr Johnson are not my concern. But a series like this presents itself as factual, or at least fact-based, and I seriously question how it can be.

This Sceptred Isle is being produced by British satellite broadcaster Sky TV.

No major government figure has broken ranks since the pandemic began to tell “their side of the story.” Actual verifiable information of what went on behind closed doors in Downing Street in the first half of 2020 doesn’t exist; at best This Sceptred Isle will be based on hearsay. When a series is trying to bill itself as having at least a basis in fact, that’s not acceptable.

One of my favourite miniseries of the last few years was HBO’s Chernobyl. Like This Sceptred Isle, Chernobyl took a factual event – the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster – and dramatised it for television. As I noted once, some pretty significant changes were made, including the creation of a fictional “composite” character. However, the events surrounding the Chernobyl disaster were well-established by 2019, with books written about the subject, involved persons having given frank first-hand accounts of what took place, and decades of historical analysis of the precise details of the disaster and its consequences for the creative team at HBO to draw on. The result was one of the best pieces of television made in the last few years, and something which is as accurate as can be for a dramatic work.

HBO’s Chernobyl earned widespread acclaim… but was produced years after the events it depicted.

All of that was possible because of the series’ distance from the events it depicted. Almost a quarter of a century had passed since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the passage of time allowed for more information to be available, making the show more accurate. This Sceptred Isle is filming now, right in the middle of the pandemic. Despite some signs of progress in some parts of the world, the pandemic is not dying down nor going away, and we can’t say what the state of affairs will be in six weeks or six months from now, let alone by the second half of next year. That context is crucial to a series like This Sceptred Isle, and will be entirely absent from the production.

How we reflect on the pandemic’s early days will depend entirely on what course it takes over the remainder of this year and into next year. Will it die down with the rollout of vaccination programmes across the world? Or will it adapt, flare up, and continue to wreak havoc? Without knowing the answer to that question, This Sceptred Isle may very well end up on the wrong side of the argument, either being overly-critical of a government that did its best, or by being too lenient in retrospect. It’s an impossible line to walk without knowing what happens next.

This Sceptred Isle aims to look at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic – but the pandemic (and his handling of it) are still ongoing.

In short, This Sceptred Isle is trying to produce a television series based on an unfinished story. We don’t yet know how or when the coronavirus pandemic will end, nor what all of the consequences will be. There will be political fallout from it, that’s all but certain. But without knowing which way to lean, without crucial information that won’t be heard in public for several years at least, the show will be little more than straight-faced pantomime, stabbing in the dark trying to tell a compelling story without the necessary facts or information to do so.

If its objective is to criticise the government and convince people not to support them, maybe the creative team will consider This Sceptred Isle a success. If they don’t care about creating a fact-based depiction of events to begin with, they naturally won’t be bothered by such criticism. But blindly attacking the government at a dangerous moment is not a good thing, and I’m concerned that if This Sceptred Isle is nothing more than a teardown of everything the government has done, it will have implications for the country. If we’re in a position when the series is broadcast where more vaccinations are needed, or where there are still some rules or restrictions in place, a savage attack on every aspect of the government’s handling of the crisis could lead to people ceasing to abide by the rules or become unwilling to get vaccinated.

Could there be unintended consequences if This Sceptred Isle goes too far in its attacks on the UK government?

I’m positive that there was a mad rush on the part of television producers to be the first to make a major drama series based on the pandemic, and Sky jumped the gun and managed to get in ahead of everyone else. But in this case, patience may be a virtue. If This Sceptred Isle is shown to contain scenes which are demonstrably false, that will harm its reputation and damage Sky’s brand.

A series like This Sceptred Isle is important and necessary – but not yet. Right now it’s too soon, and with people still sick and dying both in the UK and around the world, it seems aggressive and downright ghoulish to try to dramatise the pandemic for money. Not only that, but because of the lack of clear and verifiable information about what’s going on in the real world, the series will be inaccurate at best – and completely and utterly wrong at worst. Maybe that’s what it’s designed to be; Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party are not well-supported in the entertainment industry as a whole, and this could simply be a way to attack them. But when the entire offering is based around telling a story grounded in the truth, that’s not good enough.

Art and entertainment will dine out on the pandemic in the years ahead. There are so many different kinds of stories that can be told about it, from the exciting and tense to the wholesome and sweet. Some projects can be timely, considering the effects of things like refusal to wear a mask or vaccine hesitancy. But a project like This Sceptred Isle, with its inclusion of characters based on real people and claiming to depict real events, comes at the wrong moment. It’s too soon – and that makes it feel as though it’s in very poor taste.

This Sceptred Isle will be broadcast on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV in the UK in “Autumn 2022.” International distribution has not been announced at time of writing. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Twelve great episodes of The Simpsons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ad campaign for Paramount+ has been surprisingly strong

In early March, CBS All Access is being relaunched under the new name Paramount+. As a Trekkie, I’m invested in the future of Star Trek, and it’s my hope that Paramount+ will be a successful, stable home for the franchise in the 2020s and beyond. The rebranding of CBS All Access is in many ways a positive thing, especially as ViacomCBS will be taking Paramount+ international, beginning with launches in Australia and the Scandinavian countries.

At the same time, though, I can’t help but feel that, if CBS All Access had proved to be the runaway success ViacomCBS was hoping for, the rebranding would be unnecessary. ViacomCBS has never been totally up-front about subscriber numbers, viewership, or revenue, so it’s hard to tell how big of a success CBS All Access has really been. But we’re drifting off-topic.

The rebranding has led to an ad campaign in the run-up to next month’s launch of Paramount+, and I have to admit that I’m surprised at how fun the commercials have been.

Anson Mount during the Super Bowl ad.

As someone who doesn’t watch broadcast television any more, I don’t actually see a lot of ads. But because I follow Star Trek and Paramount+ on social media I’ve seen most of the adverts made for the new service, including one which was broadcast during the Super Bowl – the single biggest and most valuable day of the year in terms of television advertising in the United States. The fact that ViacomCBS paid millions of dollars for a Super Bowl commercial shows how seriously they’re taking the launch of Paramount+.

Star Trek has been front and centre of this ad campaign, with the stars of Discovery, Picard, and the upcoming Strange New Worlds all being featured prominently. There was also a separate Star Trek Universe ad that showed off the franchise. These ads have been clever and funny, and above all they’re memorable. After being shown prominently during the Super Bowl, and being discussed online, I don’t think there can be many folks in the United States who are unaware of the impending arrival of Paramount+ – and hopefully that has already begun to translate into pre-orders and subscribers to the service.

Sir Patrick Stewart during the Super Bowl ad.

Sonequa Martin-Green reprised her role as Michael Burnham – albeit in the “old” Discovery uniform – for the ads, and Anson Mount returned as Captain Pike too. We also saw Ethan Peck’s Spock, and of course Sir Patrick Stewart was heavily featured and narrated the commercials. The message was clear: Star Trek is back, and the best place to see it is on Paramount+.

A couple of years ago Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants, passed away. There was a campaign online to have the song Sweet Victory from the cartoon incorporated into the Super Bowl halftime show, but fans were left disappointed when it was only given the barest of mentions. The Paramount+ Super Bowl ad featured the song – as SpongeBob SquarePants is a Nickelodeon show, and Nickelodeon is a ViacomCBS company. This alone has brought a huge amount of online attention to Paramount+ from fans who felt the 2019 Super Bowl didn’t go far enough, and whoever it was in ViacomCBS’ marketing department that came up with the idea deserves a raise!

Hopefully it will be a “sweet victory” for Paramount+!

There are still arguably too many streaming platforms, especially in the United States. And over the next few years we’ll see which survive and which end up either closing down or amalgamating in order to remain competitive. Paramount+ is not quite at the same level as Netflix or Disney+ – but ViacomCBS have a huge advantage over the likes of Apple TV+ in the sense that they can draw on a huge library of content that they already have. They’re not starting from scratch with original content nor having to pay expensive licensing rights to other people’s films and shows. In my opinion (as someone watching from the outside) that does give the service a boost.

As SpongeBob SquarePants showed during the Super Bowl, building up goodwill and using nostalgia to hook in fans – especially younger ones – is a step in the right direction as Paramount+ gets ready for its debut. I never used CBS All Access as someone who doesn’t live in the United States, but one of the criticisms levelled against it was that it didn’t have a lot going on. Besides Star Trek – which was the flagship franchise, especially when it launched – a lot of folks felt that CBS All Access was rather barebones, and I know of a lot of people who would subscribe during the run of a show they wanted to see – like Star Trek: Discovery – and promptly unsubscribe when the season was over. Hopefully Paramount+ will have enough new and legacy content to prevent that from happening.

Anson Mount, Stephen Colbert, and Sir Patrick Stewart dancing to Sweet Victory. Not sure who the animated guy is… maybe someone from Archer?

Paramount+ is also promising live sport – something relatively uncommon in the streaming world. Here in the UK, Amazon Prime Video have paid for the rights to some Premier League football (soccer) matches, but as far as I’m aware there aren’t many other platforms that do so regularly. If sport becomes a big part of Paramount+, that will certainly be another way to attract subscribers.

So the ad campaign has been fun, and it was especially cool to see Star Trek at the Super Bowl! I doubt that’s happened before! I’m rooting for the success of Paramount+, and I hope it will be a successful home for Star Trek – and its promised “mountain” of other content – going forward. Please bring it to the UK soon – I know of at least one person who’ll subscribe!

Paramount+ will launch in the United States on the 4th of March 2021. Launches in other countries and territories are already planned for early- and mid-2021. The service will be the new digital home of Star Trek. Paramount+, the Paramount logo, and all titles mentioned above are the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

What difference will Paramount+ make to Star Trek?

We’ve known for a few months that CBS All Access is planning a major rebranding as Paramount+ this year, and more details have just emerged. The new service will launch – or should that be re-launch – in March, and will be the new digital home of Star Trek in the United States. Paramount+ is also going international, with launches planned for Latin America, Canada, Australia, and Scandinavian countries all before the summer of 2021.

Paramount+ was made possible by the coming together of the two halves of ViacomCBS in 2019, and in addition to content from American network CBS, the streaming platform will offer shows and films from Nickelodeon (where Star Trek: Prodigy will make its debut soon), MTV, Comedy Central, Paramount Network, and most significantly, films released under the Paramount Pictures brand.

Films from Paramount will be a big part of the new service.

Licensing rights are complicated, though, and with many shows and films contracted to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, etc. it seems likely that Paramount+ won’t have everything in its library immediately available in every country and territory. Star Trek: Discovery, for example, looks set to remain on Netflix outside of the United States – even in countries where Paramount+ will operate – at least in the short-to-medium term.

There was no mention of a UK launch for this new service, which from a personal point of view is a bit of a double-edged sword! On the one hand I’m disappointed that we aren’t being prioritised by ViacomCBS for this new service, but on the other hand I’m already subscribed to Netflix and Amazon Prime Video for my Star Trek shows (as well as Disney+) and I don’t exactly relish adding a new streaming platform to my monthly bills!

Hopefully a UK launch isn’t too far away.

And that encapsulates the challenge facing Paramount+. Since CBS All Access launched in the United States in 2017, most people I’ve spoken to or heard from either aren’t subscribed at all or only subscribe for a few weeks to see whichever show they’re interested in, then cancel their subscription when the season ends. Netflix offers a huge library of content such that many people are content to have a year-round subscription – will that be true of Paramount+?

The name Paramount carries a certain gravitas, far more so internationally than CBS, which as an American network is not particularly well-known overseas. The addition of shows from the likes of Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, MTV, etc. as well as Paramount’s extensive back catalogue of films does make it seem like an appealing package – but is that good enough?

One of the promises made by Paramount+.

There are a lot of streaming platforms competing for attention in the current market, so much so that we’re in an era dubbed the “streaming wars.” People who cut the cord and stopped paying for cable or satellite television did so to save money first and foremost, as well as to watch what they wanted on their own schedule. Expecting viewers to pick up half a dozen or more subscriptions pushes them back into cable television-scale costs, and for many it just won’t be worth it to pick up a second-tier service like Paramount+, especially if they already have Netflix or one of the bigger services.

However, ViacomCBS is clearly going all-in with Paramount+, and a wider international rollout looks likely, as well as taking back shows and films that are currently available elsewhere. As Paramount+ grows its library of content, both with new shows and films and by returning its older content to the platform when contracts and licenses lapse, it has the potential to be a pretty big and interesting service – certainly bigger than the likes of Apple TV+, which has to rely entirely on brand-new programming due to having no back catalogue.

SpongeBob SquarePants is one of the famous series that is coming to Paramount+.

Decades worth of films and television shows broadcast across multiple channels could be Paramount+’s ace in the hole. There’s a trend for nostalgia and returning to classics of the past – which is a big part of why Star Trek is back in the 2020s – so with that in mind, many people will be at least a little interested to see what else Paramount+ has to offer.

Paramount+ will need a well-designed user interface and a decent marketing push, but I feel the name, branding, and greater library of content are all appealing and will bring in an audience. It can take time for a streaming service to both establish itself and become profitable, so as long as ViacomCBS is willing to make the investment and give it time to pay off, hopefully the platform will at the very least become stable as time goes by.

The Paramount+ logo. Better get used to seeing it!

The rebranding is a risk in a way, and its international rollout may mean in the longer term that some Trekkies who had access to Star Trek elsewhere may lose that access as rights and licenses change. But anyone who wants to watch the various upcoming Star Trek productions will know that Paramount+ is the place to do so, and I guess that’s a good thing.

If Paramount+ were coming to the UK I would sign up, and although it will be an expense it’s one I’m happy to absorb if it means more Star Trek! The business people who own and operate the Star Trek brand decided years ago that pushing their own streaming service was the way to go, and while we can debate the merits of that versus the option of just producing shows and selling them to the likes of Netflix, it has resulted in the broadest and most varied lineup of Star Trek productions ever – something I do appreciate.

So I wish Paramount+ well. Hopefully it will be the home to Star Trek productions new and old for a long time to come, and the catalyst for continuing to expand the final frontier into new live-action shows, animated series, miniseries, and feature films. Please bring Paramount+ to the UK soon… and while you’re at it, this is a great excuse to finally remaster Deep Space Nine and Voyager – doing so would surely bring in viewers who loved those shows during their original runs.

Paramount+ will launch in the United States on the 4th of March 2021. Launches in other countries and territories are already planned for early- and mid-2021. The service will be the new digital home of Star Trek. Paramount+, the Paramount logo, and all titles mentioned above are the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Another new Doctor won’t fix Doctor Who…

It seems increasingly likely that Jodie Whittaker is in her final season as the titular Doctor in the BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who. The upcoming season will be the show’s thirteenth since it was recreated in 2005. The first few years of the show’s return were great – Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and even Matt Smith did very well in the role, but even by the end of Smith’s tenure the show’s decline had set in. Peter Capaldi, who took over the role after the 2013 Christmas special, endured a torrid time as the Doctor, with three seasons of stories that varied from underwhelming to just plain crap.

Jodie Whittaker, as the first woman to take over the role, came into the series at a time when it appeared to be in terminal decline. And although her arrival coincided with Doctor Who trying to put itself through a soft reboot, the decline continued. After thirteen seasons and more than fifteen years, the revived series has simply run its course. Practically every show has a natural lifespan, and though how long a series can run and remain exciting will vary, it seems clear that Doctor Who is long past that point.

Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor. She may be leaving the show imminently.

There were issues regarding Whittaker’s arrival in the role, not least the so-called “gender bending” of what has always been a male character, and some have argued that it may be a factor in why her tenure as the Doctor hasn’t been so well-received. But I would argue that, despite the strong feelings on both sides of that argument, it’s almost incidental. The way the character is written and the lack of good ideas for new and interesting stories has been much more of a hindrance to Doctor Who than its main character’s gender.

As an aside, I don’t buy the argument that fans somehow “don’t want women characters.” Look at the response to characters like Captain Janeway in Star Trek or Ahsoka in Star Wars – fans respond incredibly positively to strong women in sci-fi – but they have to be well-written characters first and foremost. If they aren’t, or if there are other issues with the stories they’re part of, fans won’t be interested – just as they aren’t interested in boring male characters or male characters involved in crap stories.

Star Trek’s Captain Janeway debunks the argument that sci-fi fans don’t want to see strong women.

Peter Capaldi is exactly how I would picture the Doctor if someone described the character to me. Compared to his two predecessors, David Tennant and Matt Smith, Capaldi had the gravitas required to truly embody the ancient time-travelling alien. But the storylines he got during his tenure were, as mentioned, uninteresting at best. As a result, viewership dropped, interest dropped, and while some fans may have been somewhat interested in what was billed as a second revival of the series when Jodie Whittaker took over, that interest soon dropped away when the underlying issues with Doctor Who were seen to remain.

Modern Doctor Who has suffered from an overuse of three key villains: the Weeping Angels, the Cybermen, and the Daleks. All three were fantastic in their initial appearances from 2005-2010, but by the turn of the last decade there was a sense that they were played out. Having seen the Doctor outsmart and defeat the Daleks in particular at least once a season for twelve seasons, they need a break.

The Daleks have to be one of the most overused villains in all of science fiction.

But the sad thing is that, when the writers in recent seasons have tried to step away from familiar adversaries, the new creations made for the series have just felt incredibly bland. Generic opponents invented for the Doctor and his or her companions have been so completely boring that I honestly couldn’t tell you the names or attributes of any off the top of my head. I’d have to go away and look up who the Doctor and co. have taken on in recent seasons, such is the boring, generic, bland nature of the factions and races created for this once-great sci-fi series.

When Doctor Who was revived in 2005, it was brought back by a team of people who had loved the original show and wanted to see it succeed again. I don’t want to question the dedication and commitment of the writers and producers behind recent seasons, but it doesn’t feel that they’re as interested in Doctor Who as Russell T Davies, Mark Gatiss, and even Steven Moffat had been in the first years after the show returned.

Another overused adversary: the Cybermen.

If making a big change to the Doctor when Whittaker was introduced didn’t reinvigorate the series, replacing her in the title role won’t help. Doctor Who needs a root-and-branch overhaul, but even then it’s hard to see where to take the series. Its iconic villains have become boring, cardboard cut-out opposition, and since the introduction of the Weeping Angels all the way back in 2007, no new villain has been anything other than a bland, generic sci-fi alien.

Realistically what Doctor Who needs is for the main series to go back on hiatus. The world-building in Doctor Who – at least in earlier seasons – was fantastic, and offers the opportunity to branch out into spin-offs that perhaps could look at the Time War or other key events in the series’ canon. But the main show needs a break. Maybe in another fifteen or twenty years, when another new team of writers have some genuinely good ideas, it can come back. But simply recasting the Doctor yet again won’t cut it.

Doctor Who Season 13 is due out later this year on the BBC. Doctor Who is the copyright of BBC Studios. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

What might we watch and play in 2021?

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

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

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

Cinema

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

Number 1:
Dune

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

Number 2:
No Time To Die

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

Number 3:
Jungle Cruise

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

Number 4:
The Matrix 4

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

Number 5:
Raya and the Last Dragon

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

Number 6:
The Suicide Squad

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

Number 7:
The King’s Man

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

Number 8:
Uncharted

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

Number 9:
Death on the Nile

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

Number 10:
Free Guy

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

Gaming

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

Number 1:
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

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

Number 2:
Hogwarts Legacy

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

Number 3:
Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga

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

Number 4:
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum

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

Number 5:
Skull & Bones

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

Number 6:
Outriders

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

Number 7:
GhostWire: Tokyo

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

Number 8:
Diablo IV

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

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

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

Number 10:
Humankind

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

Television

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

Number 1:
Zack Snyder’s Justice League

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

Number 2:
Star Trek: Prodigy

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

Number 3:
Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series

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

Number 4:
Station Eleven

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

Number 5:
Foundation