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.

What If…? Star Trek edition!

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the following Star Trek productions: The Search for Spock, The Next Generation Season 3, Nemesis, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Star Trek 2009.

Over on Disney+, Marvel has recently put out a series of animated short films with a very interesting premise. These shorts asked what might’ve happened in the Marvel universe if circumstances had changed, characters had taken different actions, or things had ended differently.

Alternate history has always been a subject that fascinated me! So with that in mind, we’re going to consider a few “what ifs” from the Star Trek franchise – from an in-universe point of view, naturally! There are more than 800 Star Trek stories at time of writing, meaning that there are literally hundreds of potential scenarios where a different decision or different outcome could have radically changed the Star Trek galaxy.

Inspired by Marvel’s What If…? series, we’re going to put a Star Trek spin on this concept!

As always, please keep in mind that all of this is one person’s subjective opinion! I’m indulging in fan-fiction and pure speculation based on my own thoughts about how some of these scenarios might’ve unfolded. If you hate all of my ideas, or something you like wasn’t included, that’s okay! Within the Star Trek fandom there’s enough room for different opinions.

With that out of the way, let’s consider some Star Trek “what ifs!”

Number 1: What if… Captain Picard couldn’t be saved after being assimilated?

Locutus of Borg.

This isn’t going to go the way you might be expecting! In this scenario, the events of The Best of Both Worlds play out as we saw on screen: Picard is captured, the Borg defeat the Federation at Wolf-359, Riker and the Enterprise race to confront them over Earth, and Captain Picard is able to communicate to Data how to defeat them. The Borg cube explodes, and the Federation lives to fight another day! But unfortunately Captain Picard then dies – severing his connection to the Collective and/or removing his Borg implants was too much for his body and mind to take, and he doesn’t survive beyond the end of The Best of Both Worlds, Part II.

As Starfleet and the crew of the Enterprise-D mourn the loss of Captain Picard, Captain Edward Jellico is assigned to the ship as his replacement, and many of the events later in The Next Generation proceed unaltered. As Q would tell Picard in the episode Tapestry, even without him in command the Enterprise-D and Starfleet would be fine.

Captain Edward Jellico.

The Federation, armed with new knowledge of the Borg, developed new ships like the Defiant-class and Sovereign-class, and were even able to defend against a second Borg incursion a few years later – albeit at great cost. But the loss of Captain Picard would have a huge impact later, in the year 2379. A coup on Romulus brings a human clone to power – Shinzon. Shinzon’s plot to destroy the Federation was only stopped because of his personal connection to Picard, a connection that fascinated him and that he hoped could save his life.

Without that obstacle in the way, Shinzon sees no reason to wait or to play nice with the Federation before implementing his plan. He takes his flagship, the Reman warbird Scimitar, and heads straight for Earth before the Federation even has time to respond diplomatically to the change in government on Romulus. Under cloak, the Scimitar deploys its thalaron radiation weapon – massacring all life on planet Earth and crippling the Federation government and Starfleet command.

Without Captain Picard to pose a distraction, Shinzon was able to launch his attack on Earth.

With war now assured between the Romulans and Federation, Romulan commanders who had been sceptical of Shinzon rally to the cause. All-out war breaks out between the Romulan Empire and the residual Federation, but without a government or command structure to provide a coordinated response, and seriously demoralised from the attack on Earth, things don’t go well for Starfleet. The Scimitar proves to be an unstoppable force all on its own, and its thalaron radiation weapon is able to devastate multiple other planets: Betazed, Andoria, Alpha Centauri, Mars, and others. The Federation is forced to sue for peace on very unfavourable terms.

However, Shinzon wouldn’t live to see the Romulan victory. Without the original Picard, there was no way to save his life from the DNA degradation that he was suffering from, and shortly after the Federation’s defeat Shinzon dies. His Reman viceroy would succeed him as the new leader of the Romulan Empire, an empire which now incorporated large swathes of what had once been Federation space. Whether the Romulans could hold all of this territory, and whether their empire would accept a Reman leader, are now open questions…

Number 2: What if… Spock wasn’t resurrected on the Genesis Planet?

Spock’s empty coffin on the Genesis Planet.

This scenario sees the events of The Wrath of Khan unfold exactly as we saw on screen. Khan stages an attack on the Enterprise, steals the Genesis device, and is defeated at the Battle in the Mutara Nebula. Spock sacrifices his life repairing the Enterprise’s warp drive, allowing the ship to outrun the blast of the Genesis device. But in our alternate world, Captain Kirk doesn’t give Spock a Starfleet funeral. Instead Spock’s remains are returned to Vulcan, in line with his and his family’s wishes. There is no chance for a resurrection because Spock never came into contact with the Genesis Planet.

Spock would indeed prove instrumental in several key events later in his life that now can’t happen. But we’re going to focus on the Kelvin timeline today. Spock’s actions in the Kelvin timeline saved Earth from Nero’s attack – but without his presence there’s no one to stop the crazed Romulan commander.

Nero.

Assuming that Nero arrived in the Kelvin timeline thanks to Red Matter (presumably deployed by someone else from the Federation as part of a plan to save Romulus), he has no reason to wait for Spock before enacting his revenge plan. After destroying the USS Kelvin (killing the infant Kirk in the process), Nero races to Vulcan and destroys the planet in the year 2233 – decades earlier than he would during the events of Star Trek 2009. Before the Federation even has time to realise what’s happening, and with Vulcan still collapsing, Nero heads to Earth and deploys his weapon for the second time – destroying the planet.

Nero then moves on quickly, targeting Tellar Prime and other Federation member worlds and colonies. The devastating losses mean it takes Starfleet a while to reorganise, but eventually the remaining fleet comes together to make a last stand over Andoria – the last remaining Federation member world. The battle against Nero’s powerful flagship is long and incredibly difficult, but Starfleet eventually prevails through sheer numerical advantage – despite suffering huge losses.

The Narada and the USS Kelvin.

Nero’s defeat wouldn’t mark the end of the rump Federation’s problems, though. With many planets and colonies destroyed, more than half the fleet lost, and millions of people turned into refugees, the Federation is an easy target. First the Klingons come, seizing planets and systems near their borders. Then the Gorn, the Tholians, and the Romulans also join in, picking off star systems that the Federation could no longer manage to defend. Federation space shrinks to a small area in the vicinity of Andoria.

The Andorians were not happy with the large numbers of refugees who sought them out, though. Plans were put in place to resettle humans, Vulcans, Tellarites, and others on new colony worlds, even though doing so would leave them vulnerable. After being kicked out by the Andorians, the remaining Federation members maintained their alliance more out of fear and necessity than anything else. How long these small populations can survive in a hostile galaxy is unknown…

Number 3: What if… the USS Voyager went the other way?

The USS Voyager.

The events of Voyager’s premiere episode, Caretaker, play out much the same as they did on screen in this scenario. But after that, things take a very different turn – literally! The Maquis raider Val Jean, under Chakotay’s command, is transported to the Delta Quadrant by an entity known as the Caretaker. The USS Voyager is likewise transported by the Caretaker’s Array, and after the death of the Caretaker and a short battle with the Kazon, Captain Janeway orders the destruction of the Array. Voyager must find a way home.

Instead of taking the most direct route to Earth, Captain Janeway and the crew of Voyager consider an alternative idea – heading for the Gamma Quadrant, and the far side of the Bajoran Wormhole. From there it would only be a short journey back to Earth! The crew debate the ideas for a while, and there isn’t a clear consensus. No starship has ever undertaken such a long journey before, so there really aren’t ground rules for route planning when it comes to long-distance interstellar travel.

A non-canon map of the Star Trek galaxy.
Image Credit: Star Trek Star Charts (2002) via Memory Beta

Using the map above (which is non-canon) as a guide, the crew quickly figure out that both a direct route home via the Delta and Beta Quadrants or an indirect route via the Gamma Quadrant and Bajoran Wormhole are roughly the same length and would take roughly the same amount of time.

The two crews can’t agree at first. Chakotay and the Maquis, keen to avoid going anywhere near Cardassian space and fearing being turned over to Cardassian authorities upon their return, firmly advocate for the Delta Quadrant route. Neelix claims to be familiar with space in both directions and along both routes, but ultimately the decision falls to Captain Janeway.

The choice of route ultimately falls to Captain Janeway under the “my ship, my decision” principle.

Somewhat ironically when considering her actions in Endgame, Janeway chooses the Gamma Quadrant route. Why? She’s fearful of the Borg, naturally. Whatever dangers and obstacles may await Voyager in the Gamma Quadrant, she tells her crew, Starfleet has known for years that the Borg’s home territory is the Delta Quadrant. Taking that path seems positively suicidal in comparison, so Voyager will instead head for the Gamma Quadrant terminus of the Bajoran wormhole.

Voyager’s superior technology makes battling the Kazon sects in the area around the Caretaker’s Array relatively easy, but they have to be careful to avoid space claimed by the Haakonian Order – the conquerors of Neelix’s people, the Talaxians. After they leave their starting region, though, the truth is that we simply don’t know very much at all in canon about this area of space. Would Voyager find a faster way home through some technological means or natural phenomenon? Or would the ship and crew have to undertake a slow, decades-long journey to reach the wormhole? Would they even survive at all, or instead fall victim to some villainous faction or dangerous anomaly present in this unexplored region?

Number 4: What if… the USS Discovery didn’t go into the far future?

Michael Burnham and the USS Discovery at the mouth of the time-wormhole.

I already have a theory discussing in detail why I think the USS Discovery didn’t need to go into the far future based on the outcome of the battle in Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2 – and you can find that one by clicking or tapping here. For the sake of this scenario, though, all we’re going to say is that somehow Captain Pike, Burnham, and Saru figured out a way to defeat the Control AI without sending the USS Discovery into the 32nd Century.

Obviously some changes wouldn’t appear until the 32nd Century. Without the USS Discovery and Michael Burnham, no one is able to discover the source of the Burn or the huge cache of dilithium in the Verubin nebula. Without the USS Discovery and its Spore Drive to fight over, the Emerald Chain doesn’t stage a bold attack on Starfleet HQ. Su’Kal would almost certainly die alone when the KSF Khi’eth is destroyed – whether that event would trigger a second Burn is unclear.

A second Burn could occur.

But more substantial changes could have taken place in the Star Trek galaxy centuries earlier. With the Spore Drive still in existence in the 23rd Century, it stands to reason that Starfleet would have continued to explore the technology – it works, after all, so if a new way of navigating the mycelial network could be discovered, the Spore Drive would be an absolute game-changer for the Federation.

At some point, Starfleet scientists would hit upon the idea of using empaths to connect to the mycelial network in place of augmenting human DNA. After promising test flights using Betazoid and even Vulcan navigators, in the late 23rd Century Starfleet is able to begin a wider rollout of the Spore Drive. At first a handful of ships are kitted out as rapid-response vessels, able to jump across Federation space at a moment’s notice to assist with emergency situations.

Starfleet is able to kit out a whole fleet of Spore Drive-enabled starships.

The Spore Drive would soon attract the attention of other factions, however. Unwilling to allow the Federation a massive tactical advantage, particularly in the aftermath of the Federation-Klingon war, the Klingon Empire begins development on their own Spore Drive programme. The Romulans follow suit, and by the early part of the 24th Century the Spore Drive has become a mainstay of interstellar travel in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants.

No longer limited by geography or travel time, Starfleet is able to jump to interesting-looking phenomena across the galaxy with ease, initiating dozens of first contacts decades ahead of schedule. On one unfortunate occasion, however, a Spore Drive ship jumps to the Delta Quadrant… right into the heart of Borg space. The Borg quickly assimilate the vessel, taking the Spore Drive technology for themselves and putting a target on the Federation’s back. Due to the distances involved, Starfleet remains unaware of what happened, merely recording the USS Discovery-C as “missing in action…”

Number 5: What if… Benjamin Sisko wasn’t the Emissary of the Prophets?

Commander Benjamin Sisko.

Ignore for a moment the revelation from Image in the Sand about Benjamin Sisko’s Prophet-induced conception! For this scenario, we’re considering that there were two occupants of the Runabout which first discovered the Bajoran Wormhole: Sisko and Jadzia Dax. Though the Prophets would choose Sisko as their Emissary, they could just as easily have chosen Dax instead.

Jadzia Dax returns from the wormhole having been anointed by the Prophets as their Emissary, and receives much respect and adoration from the Bajorans. Meanwhile, Sisko makes good on his threat and quits Starfleet, returning to Earth. Jadzia is promoted to the rank of commander and given “temporary” command of DS9, due in no small part to the way the Bajorans feel about her.

Jadzia Dax assumes command of Deep Space Nine.

First contact with the Dominion occurs, and shortly afterwards the Dominion and Cardassians form an alliance – the work of Dukat, formerly the commander of Bajoran occupying forces on Bajor. The Dominion Cold War begins. Behind the scenes, Dukat is researching the Pah-wraiths, the ancient noncorporeal enemies of the Prophets. In disguise he travels to Deep Space Nine with a lone Pah-wraith, and in the course of unleashing the entity into the wormhole, kills Jadzia.

With no Emissary on the outside to come to their aid, the Prophets are fighting a losing battle against the Pah-wraiths while the Dominion War rages. The loss of Dax, though distressing to the crew of DS9 and her husband Worf, doesn’t appear to matter to the Federation war effort… not at first. In fact, the wormhole’s closure appears to provide the Federation alliance a reprieve, as the threat of Dominion reinforcements is reduced.

Jadzia is killed by the Pah-wraiths.

However, without the Orb of the Emissary re-opening the wormhole and expelling the Pah-wraiths, things go badly for the Prophets. When Dukat is able to implement the next phase of his plan and release the rest of the Pah-wraiths from the Fire Caves, there’s no one to stop him. The Pah-wraiths seize control of the wormhole, and as a thank you to Dukat they destroy the Federation minefield, allowing a massive fleet of Dominion reinforcements through the wormhole. The Dominion conquer DS9 and Bajor with ease.

With no way to stop Dominion reinforcements pouring in through the wormhole, the Federation alliance moves into attrition mode, trying to hold the existing front line for as long as possible against repeated Dominion attacks. Though the Pah-wraiths don’t actively take part in the fighting, their involvement allowed Dukat and the Dominion to swing the balance of the war back in their favour. By controlling Deep Space Nine and the wormhole, the Cardassian-Dominion alliance has the Quadrant’s most significant asset. It seems like only a matter of time until the Federation will have to sue for peace, if the Dominion would even accept…

So that’s it! Five Star Trek “what ifs!”

There are many more “what if” scenarios in the Star Trek universe!

I can already think of more, so watch this space. I might return to this concept in future. I hope this was a bit of fun, and a chance to consider some alternative outcomes to some of the events we’ve seen across Star Trek’s history. I tried to pick a few different ideas from different productions – otherwise this could’ve been “five Captain Picard what ifs!”

As always, this was really just an excuse to spend a little more time in the Star Trek galaxy. It’s totally fine if you disagree with any of the storylines I’ve suggested today, or if you think this whole concept was a silly idea! None of this will ever make it to screen, and it was more of a thought experiment and creative writing project than anything else. I had fun putting this together – and I hope you enjoyed reading it.

What If…? and the logo for the series are the copyright of Marvel and The Walt Disney Company. The Star Trek franchise – including all films and series 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.

Lego Star Wars Terrifying Tales – a review

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

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

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

Poe Dameron and BB-8 with new character Dean.

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

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

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

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

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

Darth Vader’s castle – now with gift shop!

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

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

Poe was the main character in Terrifying Tales.

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

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

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

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

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

The villainous Vaneé!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The leader of the Knights of Ren.

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

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

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

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

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

Palpatine was hilarious in this vignette.

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

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

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

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

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

Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

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

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

Be careful what you wish for, Luke!

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

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

Zombified battle droids!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boba Fett, moments before dying like a chump.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Din Djarin with Boba Fett in The Mandalorian Season 2.

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

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

Promotional poster for The Book of Boba Fett.

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

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

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

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

Darth Vader in the Obi-Wan Kenobi series

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

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

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

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

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

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

What role will Vader play in the upcoming series?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jungle Cruise – film review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Jungle Cruise.

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

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

Jungle Cruise poster.

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

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

Quila hits the rapids!

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

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

Dwayne Johnson as Frank, the riverboat captain.

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

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

Lily was seeking the Tears of the Moon.

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

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

The tribal chief.

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

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

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

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

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

Did Frank and Lily condemn the Conquistadors to eternal torture?

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

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

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

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

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

Happily ever after for the main characters!

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

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

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

The Mandalorian – Season 2 review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bounties frozen in carbonite.

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

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

Baby Yoda.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(When) Will Marvel reset the MCU?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endgame felt like the end of a story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A trio of secondary characters in Avengers Infinity War.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have we seen an unstoppable shift away from the cinema?

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

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

Will empty cinemas be full again one day?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crashed ski-speeders on Crait.

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

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

AT-AT walkers seen on Hoth.

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

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

The village on Sorgan.

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

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

Darth Vader’s castle on Mustafar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke Skywalker recently appeared in The Mandalorian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spock in Star Trek: Discovery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electronic Arts seemingly loses its exclusive rights to Star Wars

For almost a decade following Disney’s acquisition of LucasFilm, only one company has been able to make Star Wars video games: Electronic Arts. A deal between Disney and EA gave them exclusive rights to the Star Wars license, and in the years since there have been four mainline Star Wars games, one Lego tie-in, one VR game, and a handful of mobile titles.

Both 2015’s Battlefront and of course 2017’s Battlefront II proved controversial and divisive; the former being disappointingly threadbare and the latter for its aggressive in-game monetisation. 2019 saw Jedi: Fallen Order, which I played through last year and was a fun title, and finally 2020 saw Star Wars: Squadrons, which I’ve also been enjoying. However, four games in nine years is perhaps less than many fans were expecting, especially with two of them having serious issues.

2015’s Battlefront was disappointing to many fans.

Calls for Electronic Arts to be “stripped” of the Star Wars license began after Battlefront’s release in 2015, but reached fever pitch in the weeks after Battlefront II’s launch. There was even a petition that hundreds of thousands of folks signed to ask Disney to revoke EA’s exclusive arrangement. That went nowhere, of course – fan petitions never achieve anything – but is indicative of the strong feelings over EA holding the rights.

The well-received Jedi: Fallen Order and Squadrons, combined with updates and patches which greatly improved Battlefront II, led to a cooling-off period, and as of early 2021 cries for the Disney-EA deal to be somehow undone had largely abated. It was a surprise, then, when LucasFilm announced a new Star Wars game… published not by EA but by Ubisoft!

“A surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one.”

Ubisoft has been honing its style of open-world games for years, with franchises like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Watch Dogs. It seems, from the teaser announcement made yesterday, that the new title will be an open-world game in a similar style, though no mention has yet been made whether it will be a single-player title like those in Ubisoft’s other open-world series, or a multiplayer “live service.” From my point of view I’m hoping for the former!

The game itself may be several years away, though Star Wars does have a recent track record of announcing games closer to release – that’s what happened with Squadrons last year, for example. No release window has been suggested as yet, and in fact we know precious little about the game itself beyond the publisher responsible.

Star Wars: Squadrons.

The upcoming game is just one part of this story, though. Most industry watchers agreed that Electronic Arts had a couple of years remaining on their deal with Disney, which raises the question of how and why this Ubisoft game has been able to enter development. It’s possible that the original contract was incorrectly reported, in which case it may simply have run its course. Or there may have been clauses regarding a number of titles, profit made, etc. that Electronic Arts didn’t live up to, allowing Disney to open up Star Wars to other companies. We don’t know the details – and unless someone senior breaks ranks to tell us, we likely never will!

Exclusivity arrangements can be difficult, and the Disney-EA deal over Star Wars is pretty much a textbook example of why. An exclusive contract like the one Disney offered EA effectively gives that company a monopoly over the license, and anyone who knows anything about basic economics can tell you why monopolies are a bad idea in practically every industry.

No, not that kind of Star Wars monopoly…

Having a monopoly meant there was no threat of competition, and this allowed EA to sit on the Star Wars license, cancelling titles that senior executives didn’t think would bring in “recurring user spending” and not feeling under any real pressure to develop or release anything. They could afford to be complacent because no one else was contractually allowed to even pitch a concept for a Star Wars title.

This attitude was changed when Electronic Arts saw the scale of the backlash to Battlefront II. The effects of that debacle are still being felt, and the game opened the eyes of parents, journalists, and even politicians to the shady practice of in-game gambling. But we’re off-topic. Too late, EA shifted focus away from cash-grabs, putting out the single-player Jedi: Fallen Order and following up with the space-sim Squadrons.

2017’s Battlefront II controversy may have triggered a change in thinking at EA – and at Disney.

Fans had been clamouring for a single-player story-driven Star Wars game for years, and while Battlefront II had a creditable single-player campaign, it wasn’t until Jedi: Fallen Order’s release in November 2019 that the single-player itch was truly scratched for most fans. By then the damage had been done for Electronic Arts, though, and their earlier complacency and attempts to swindle players with truly awful monetisation came back to bite them.

Though Electronic Arts will continue to work on Star Wars titles – most significantly the upcoming sequel to Jedi: Fallen Order – they will no longer be the only company Disney trusts with their incredibly expensive, incredibly lucrative license. The Ubisoft game may be the first of several upcoming Star Wars projects to be taken on by other companies, and hopefully what results will be a broader range of genres and styles of game.

Protagonist Cal Kestis in Jedi: Fallen Order.

In December 2020, LucasFilm announced half a dozen or so upcoming Star Wars films and television shows. There will be a lot of Star Wars content to come over the next few years at least, and while not all of the shows and films will be suitable for a video game adaptation, some may be. Disney and LucasFilm need to ensure they have access to the broadest possible range of talents in the video game industry if they hope to make the most of Star Wars.

I wasn’t especially excited by the film and television announcements made last month, to put it politely. Too many of them seem to be spin-offs, prequels, and deep dives into uninteresting side-characters rather than expanding Star Wars beyond its original incarnation. But even so, several of these projects seem ripe for video game tie-ins, and the end of the Skywalker Saga of films coupled with this expansion into new films and television projects may have been a contributing factor to Disney ending or not renewing its exclusive arrangement with EA.

Could a game based on the upcoming series Rangers of the New Republic be in the works?

For my two cents, I see the ending of this kind of exclusivity deal as a good thing. Monopolies are problematic for consumers for precisely the reasons the Disney-EA arrangement shows, and in future it could even be used as a case study for why these kinds of deals are a bad idea. Opening up Star Wars games to other companies allows for different points of view, competition, and hopefully what will result at the end of the day will be better games. Not necessarily more games. But better ones.

It is worth noting that Ubisoft is a company that hasn’t exactly escaped controversy recently. There have been serious problems within the company, including sexual harassment accusations against senior executives, and the accusation that the company itself tried to cover this up and cover for abusers. Company culture and institutional problems count against Ubisoft, and while Star Wars fans are rightly excited to learn that the franchise will be moving away from the EA exclusivity deal, it’s worth noting that Ubisoft has issues – and Disney should also be aware of this. The last thing the Star Wars brand needs right now is further controversy, yet a team-up with Ubisoft risks precisely that.

So that’s it. The end to Electronic Arts’ monopoly over the Star Wars license. Now if only someone would make a Star Trek video game…

The Star Wars franchise – including all titles mentioned above – is the copyright of Disney and LucasFilm. Star Wars: Battlefront, Star Wars: Battlefront II, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and Star Wars: Squadrons were published by Electronic Arts. Some screenshots and promo art courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Will the Avatar sequels improve the franchise’s standing?

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Avatar.

James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi film Avatar never really managed to break into pop culture in quite the way he hoped. It was a huge financial success – in part because folks were curious to see what this new project was all about – but it never really became a top-tier entertainment brand in the way Star Wars or Harry Potter did. In 1977, Star Wars became a phenomenon, and in the years afterwards the film was constantly on fans’ minds. The Empire Strikes Back cemented its place at the pinnacle of the sci-fi genre… even if Return of the Jedi perhaps tarnished its halo a little!

Avatar just isn’t on that level. There was a lot of hype leading up to its release, with a decent (if rather boastful) marketing campaign spearheading 20th Century Fox’s efforts to push Avatar as the “next big thing.” But for a lot of moviegoers, the film was just okay. It wasn’t bad; it was a solid, enjoyable summer blockbuster that went toe-to-toe with the best pictures of 2009 – including the rebooted Star Trek! But after leaving the cinema, I never really got the sense that fans were clamouring for more in the way Trekkies, Potter-heads, and Star Wars fans are for their respective franchises.

Avatar was a successful film – but can it become a successful franchise?

The creation of Pandora – The World of Avatar at Walt Disney World in Florida is a great demonstration of this. The new land attracted attention when it was built, and for months after it opened its rides were queuing out the door! But that happens for almost any new Disney attraction, and when compared to the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in 2019, it pales in comparison. There was huge excitement to be transported to a galaxy far, far away. There was curious interest in Pandora… but that was all.

None of this is to say Avatar was bad. It wasn’t at all, and I thoroughly enjoyed it when I first saw it. But I was never desperate to re-watch it, and my latest revisit to the 2009 film – which may be the third or fourth time I’ve seen it – was prompted by nothing more than boredom. But it also led to this article, so at least I got something out of it!

Pandora – The World of Avatar at Walt Disney World.

This is a much broader point that ties into another piece I’ve been writing, but the difference between a good one-off story and a good story that becomes a larger franchise is world-building. Any film, television show, book, or even video game that hopes to be “the next Star Wars” needs to put time and effort into creating a world that fans want to explore. Star Wars and Star Trek did so, and they did so by showing fans a relatively small piece of what felt like a huge picture. The galaxies depicted in Star Wars and Star Trek are so much bigger than the few characters we met in their original incarnations; it feels like there’s much more to see beyond what was depicted on screen.

Avatar – and a lot of other wannabe-franchises too – doesn’t have that, at least not yet. Partly that’s because the film doesn’t hint at anything more than what we see – Earth, Pandora… and that’s it. And on Pandora there’s one major human outpost. There are starships flying back and forth, and the glimpses we got of Earth had a futuristic vibe, but the world Avatar created doesn’t feel as though it extends beyond the places we see. There’s no other planets that we could imagine humans or Na’vi colonising one day. There’s no fleets of starships on missions of exploration or fighting battles; the few ships we see just fly between Earth and Pandora.

A starship seen in Avatar.

Pandora itself is absolutely beautiful; a location painstakingly created. And the Na’vi are more than just a simple analogue for Native Americans or other indigenous peoples; Cameron and his team went to great lengths to craft Na’vi culture, even going so far as to write a fully-formed Na’vi language. Those efforts may yet pay off, but they don’t seem to have thus far. Because as interesting as the Na’vi are – and they are undeniably interesting – they’re all there is. One tribe of Na’vi and one human settlement on Pandora, and… what? Nothing else, as far as the film showed us.

There’s a sense of scale missing from Avatar, and its world-building, while wonderfully done, is small. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on one aspect of a story and a few characters – in the first film in a series that kind of needs to happen! But if the aim is to create a series with franchise potential, something to hook fans in and get our imaginations running, that sense of scale and the idea of a greater world beyond what we see on screen is essential. It’s the single most important element in building a larger story – and Avatar didn’t get it right.

So on to the question I posed at in the title of this article: can the planned sequels – of which there are four – improve the franchise’s standing? Can they spin out what was a decent one-off sci-fi blockbuster into something more? Can Avatar make the jump and become “the next Star Wars?”

Two Na’vi seen in concept art for the Avatar sequel series.

The length of time between Avatar and its sequels may be an issue. By the time Avatar 2 hits cinemas in December 2022 – assuming it meets its planned release date – thirteen years will have passed since the first title. Given the general apathy and lack of interest in Avatar this long after its premiere, the first part of this sequel series will have to spend at least some of its runtime refreshing audiences on what happened in the first film and what the setting is. When I sat down to re-watch Avatar earlier, I had only a vague recollection of the film, and I daresay a lot of folks will be in the same position.

When The Empire Strikes Back came out, it had been only three years since Star Wars had been in cinemas. And while Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released a decade after The Original Series ended, the only reason the film was made was because there was a growing fanbase who had watched the show when it was rebroadcast and those fans were clamouring for more. Is anyone clamouring for Avatar 2?

A scene on Pandora from concept art.

Avatar was a welcome addition to the sci-fi genre. Especially as the last decade has been dominated by reboots, adaptations, remakes, and sequels, it was a welcome breath of fresh air, and despite what I’ve said about its world feeling small, there is potential for it to be expanded upon. To say that the Avatar series can never be more than it already is would be ridiculous – there’s only been one film so far, and it was decent. It didn’t blow up the genre or redefine what a film could be in the way its pre-release marketing seemed to suggest, but it was good. I don’t dislike Avatar.

The sequels do have a pretty big job to do, though. The storyline of Avatar was exciting, but it was hardly original. Comparisons have been made to Dances with Wolves and even Disney’s Pocahontas, and while I don’t think it’s fair to call it derivative, it wasn’t a unique narrative by any means. That point of criticism will have to be addressed, and the sequels will have to try harder to be different from a story perspective if they’re to achieve the heights the films are aiming for.

Na’vi fly atop their banshees in more concept art.

The beautiful world-building that worked so well for Pandora and the Na’vi needs to be expanded upon. Perhaps we could see different Na’vi tribes and civilisations on Pandora, or better yet, expand the scope of the setting out into space. Are there other moons or planets in the Pandora system, perhaps? Or is there another human settlement on some nearby world? These are just a couple of ideas for how the Avatar series can build on the successes of the first film to be bigger – to achieve that sense of scale which the best and most successful franchises have.

Avatar was also a film which had contemporary real-world analogies. I noted influences of at least two of America’s recent wars in the depiction of the Marines, scientists, and Na’vi – Vietnam and Iraq. The dense rainforests of Pandora, and the way Jake and others had trouble navigating them, were the film’s answer to the jungles of Vietnam. And references to winning “the hearts and minds” of the locals was a phrase we heard often in relation to the Iraq war during the 2000s – which is when Avatar was in development. The latter of those themes is arguably less relevant in 2021 than it was in 2009, and Avatar 2 will need to adapt to changing times.

Night time on Pandora in this final piece of concept art.

One improvement we’re sure to see is in CGI and digital animation. Avatar was released at a time when CGI was improving – and was far better than it had been even five or ten years earlier – but there are still some aspects of its visual style that haven’t aged especially well. Some textures have that “too shiny” look that plagued cinematic CGI in the 2000s, and while viewing the film on a cinema or IMAX projector screen dulled the impact of some of that, on a television set in 2021 it’s something you notice. I wouldn’t say Avatar looks dated – but it’s right on the cusp. A film that relies so heavily on computer animation – many of Avatar’s sequences are basically fully-animated – is always going to run that risk, and while it has aged more gracefully than, for example, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, there are still noticeable places where the animation isn’t up to code.

There have been improvements in computer animation since 2009, which should mean Avatar 2 and the rest of the sequel series will be far more visually interesting. Pandora was already beautiful, but if that beauty could be expanded upon I think the sequels could really be something special. Some fans tend to turn up their noses at visuals, but if you think about it, a distinct visual style is another absolutely crucial element to a franchise. Star Trek has combadges, ships with saucer sections, Klingons, and the transporter. Star Wars has white-armoured Stormtroopers, lightsabers, Jabba the Hutt, and X-wings. Avatar introduced us to the blue-skinned Na’vi, but none of its technology, characters, costumes, or locations have become iconic in the same way as the other franchises we’ve mentioned. Part of that is down to the quality of the CGI, but partly it’s the film’s own art style. Avatar 2 could introduce a new design for a starship, character, or even just a costume that will go on to be emblematic of the series – in the way that Boba Fett became a symbol of Star Wars after his debut in The Empire Strikes Back, for example.

So yes, there’s work to do to expand on Pandora and the world Avatar created in 2009. But I’m really interested to see where Avatar 2 will take the story after the conclusion of the first film, and what the other films in the planned sequel series have in store. James Cameron is an amazing director, and having put so much work and effort into the Avatar series, I really hope it will see the kind of success he’s looking for. There’s always room for more sci-fi franchises!

Avatar is out now on Blu-ray and DVD, and may be streamed on Disney+ in the United States, United Kingdom, and other countries and territories. Avatar is the copyright of 20th Century Fox and the Walt Disney Company. Avatar 2 is due for release in December 2022. Logo and official promotional artwork courtesy of avatar.com. Stock photos courtesy of Unsplash. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Crazy Uncle Dennis Awards 2020

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for some of the films, games, and television shows listed below.

Welcome to the first annual Crazy Uncle Dennis Awards! These are the best (and worst) entertainment events of the year – in my subjective opinion! Rather than writing a top ten list (like I did last year to mark the end of the decade) I’m instead choosing a few categories and awarding my picks for the best entertainment experiences of the year.

I’m including a few titles from the tail end of 2019 on this list simply because many people will have only got around to watching or playing them this year. These decisions are always difficult and I often feel that – because people put these lists together weeks or months before the end of the year – titles released in December tend to miss out. As such you’ll find a few titles from the final few weeks of 2019 being given an award – and perhaps next year there may be a title or two from the end of 2020 featured!

Most categories will have a runner-up and a winner; a few only have one, and in those cases that title wins by default.

A note about exclusions: if I haven’t seen or played a title for myself, for reasons that I hope are obvious it can’t be included. I’m only one person, and I don’t have every moment of the day to dedicate to entertainment. As such, some titles others may consider to be “massive releases” for 2020 aren’t going to be given an award. In the gaming realm, this also applies to titles that I haven’t completed. The exclusion from these awards of titles like Ghost of Tsushima and Tenet isn’t to say they aren’t good; they may be – but I have no experience with them so I’m unable to comment at this time.

With all of that out of the way let’s jump into the awards! If you like, you can try to imagine a fancy stage and some celebrity presenter handing out statuettes. That may or may not be what I’m doing as I write!

Web Series:

Nowadays many of us get at least a portion of our entertainment away from big-budget productions on websites and apps like YouTube. There are a number of top-tier YouTube shows that may have started off as typical amateur productions, but have since become far more professional. As better cameras and microphones become readily available, even low-budget YouTube productions can offer impressive audio and visuals.

Personally I watch a video or two on YouTube most days, and there are a number of channels which have produced top-quality entertainment this year. When the pandemic hit, many YouTube shows were able to keep going despite the chaos engulfing the wider entertainment industry. They had the means and the technology to do so, and that’s fantastic.

🥈Runner-up🥈
Linus Tech Tips

Linus Tech Tips is one of the first YouTube channels I began watching regularly, having stumbled upon it when looking for PC building tips a few years ago. Though some of what they do is complete overkill (what YouTube channel needs $20,000 cameras?) they have a lot of fun while doing it. Linus Tech Tips explores the high-end and cutting-edge of computers, cameras, and other technologies, and the presenters manage to make it entertaining.

The channel has continued its steady growth and now boasts a number of regular presenters in addition to the titular Linus, most of whom specialise in particular topics. There are also several other channels produced by the same team, including TechQuickie, Short Circuit, and TechLinked. The combined output of the main channel plus its subsidiaries means there’s at least one new video per day, which is great. Even less-interesting topics can be made fun when presented well, and the team at Linus Tech Tips manage to be interesting and entertaining every time.

🏆Winner🏆
SORTEDfood

I love a good cooking show. Not only can they be entertaining but also very relaxing. SORTEDfood has a usual output of two videos per week, and while in recent years they’ve stepped away from purely doing recipes and into things like kitchen gadget reviews, everything is food-themed and the enthusiasm that the five presenters have is infectious. During the coronavirus pandemic, London (where the show is recorded) was in lockdown. Despite that, the team found creative ways to get around it, and even incorporated it into their videos. In addition to recipes there were helpful things like reviews of food delivery services, which at the height of lockdown here in the UK was actually really useful. I was able to use a couple of the services they recommended to send gifts to people I couldn’t see in person; gift ideas I would never have had were it not for SORTEDfood.

Their pandemic programming was good, but when lockdown was lifted it was nice for the team to come back together and get back to their regular output. I’m a huge fan of their “ultimate battles” in particular, which pit the presenters head-to-head to create the best dish. The “pass it on” series, where all five take turns to create a single dish, is also fantastic – and often very funny. SORTEDfood manages to be both informative and entertaining, and their output during lockdown was phenomenal and undoubtedly helped many viewers during a difficult time. For all of those reaons, I’m crowing SORTEDfood the best web series of the year.

Documentaries:

I’m setting aside a whole category for documentaries because I’m a big fan. There have been some great ones in 2020, both standalone films and series. Netflix has surprised me over the last few years by growing to become a huge player in the documentary genre, funding many productions – including some Academy Award nominees. Disney+ joined the streaming wars late last year – or in March this year if you’re in the UK – and has also brought some fascinating pieces of documentary content to the small screen. It’s a great time for documentaries at the moment!

🥈Runner-up🥈
We Need To Talk About A.I.

This documentary was fascinating, if perhaps somewhat alarmist. Looking at the possible creation of general artificial intelligence, and the potential for such an AI to surpass humanity, it was a truly interesting peek behind the curtain at what researchers are doing on the cutting-edge of AI research. The documentary was presented by Keir Dullea, famous for his role as Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film saw his character go up against an out-of-control AI, and Dullea brings a gravitas to the role of narrator as a result.

The film made reference to a number of sci-fi films which look at rogue AI, most significantly Terminator 2: Judgement Day, whose director James Cameron was interviewed. From my perspective as a Trekkie, having just seen Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 and Star Trek: Picard Season 1, which both look at the potential for out-of-control AIs, the documentary brought the world of fiction uncomfortably close to the world we inhabit today. While most of the interviewees offered a fairly bleak look at future AI, particularly in the military realm, others did paint a more positive picture. The biggest thing I took away from it, though, it how little consensus there is among researchers and scientists not only on whether AI is a good idea, but whether it’s even truly possible, or how long it will take.

The film is a fascinating, slightly unnerving watch.

🏆Winner🏆
The Imagineering Story

Though it isn’t a subject I’ve talked about often here on the website, I have a great fondness for Disney’s theme parks. It’s doubtful given my health that I’ll be able to go any time soon, but I have fond memories of visits to several parks with both family and groups of friends. Combine that love of Disney with my aforementioned love of documentaries and I got what was one of the most underrated yet fascinating entertainment experiences of the year!

Prior to the launch of Disney+ in the UK in March, there was already a Disney-branded streaming platform here. I wasn’t sure what kind of an upgrade to expect when the new service arrived – except for The Mandalorian there didn’t seem to be much new. The Imagineering Story was one of the few documentaries on Disney+ at launch, but it’s absolutely fascinating, detailing the behind-the-scenes work that went into building Disney’s various parks and themed lands.

The addition of some National Geographic documentaries to Disney+ over the last year or so has made the platform into a good home for the format, though I would like to see more films and series either added from Disney’s extensive back catalogue or better yet, commissioned exclusively for Disney+.

But we’re off-topic! The Imagineering Story was beautifully narrated by Angela Bassett, and as a series made by Disney itself was able to get the perspectives of many senior people who worked at the parks and on many of the projects it covered.

Video Games:

Despite the all the chaos and pandemonium in the world in 2020, many new games – and two new consoles – managed to make it to release. While it’s true that some titles have suffered delays, by far the majority of planned and scheduled releases made it, and that’s no small accomplishment!

As a new console generation gets ready for its centre-stage moment, it’s often been the case that we get a quieter-than-average year as companies shift their focus. Despite that, though, we’ve seen some pretty big titles in 2020, including a couple that will likely be heralded as “game of the generation” or even “game of the decade!” If I’m still alive and kicking in 2029, by the way, check back as I may have a thing or two to say about that!

Though it’s far too early to say which of the two newly-launched consoles will do best in the years to come, 2020 has given all of us some great gaming experiences… and some crap ones.

Worst Game:

Let’s start by getting the worst games out of the way. 2020 has seen some stinkers, including big-budget titles from successful developers and publishers. They really ought to know better.

🥈Runner-up🥈
Marvel’s Avengers

Marvel’s Avengers is the Anthem of 2020. Or the Fallout 76 of 2020. Or the Destiny 1 of 2020. Or the The Culling II of 2020. Pick any of those live service, broken-at-launch disasters, and that’s what Marvel’s Avengers is. The “release now, fix later” business model has condemned what could have been a popular and successful title to failure. But Marvel’s Avengers hasn’t even failed spectacularly enough to be forever etched in the annals of gaming history alongside titles like 1982’s E.T. Instead it’s slowly fading away, and in six months or a year’s time, nobody will even remember it existed.

Disney and Square Enix looked at a long list of crappy video game business ideas, including paid battle-passes, console-exclusive characters, corporate tie-ins with unrelated brands like phone providers and chewing gum makers, in-game currencies, and microtransactions for each of the six main characters individually. They then decided to put all of these into the game, robbing it of any soul or heart it could have had and turning it into a bland corporate cash-grab. As soon as I heard the company planned the game as a “multi-year experience,” the writing was on the wall. If, underneath all of the corporate nonsense, there had been a halfway decent game with fun gameplay, perhaps more players would have stuck it out. But, as usual with these types of games, there wasn’t. I’m not the world’s biggest Marvel fan. So I’m not horribly offended by this game in the way some folks undoubtedly are. But I can sympathise with them, because fans deserve better than this steaming pile of crap to which Disney and Square Enix have attempted to affix the Marvel logo.

🏆Winner🏆
The Last of Us Part II

The Last Of Us Part II’s cover-based stealth/action gameplay is fine. Though better than the first game, I didn’t feel there was a colossal improvement in terms of gameplay – but that could be said about countless sequels over the last couple of console generations. Where The Last Of Us Part II fell down was its story. This was a game I was sceptical of from the beginning; the first title felt like lightning in a bottle, something that neither wanted nor required a follow-up. In 2020, though, practically every successful title ends up being spun out into a franchise.

With a theme of breaking the cycle of violence, The Last Of Us Part II considers itself “artistic” and clever. Unfortunately that theme led to a horribly unsatisfying narrative, with players not only forced to take on the role of the person who murdered Joel – the protagonist/anti-hero from the first title – but ends with Ellie letting her escape and refusing to take revenge. Had the same concept been part of a new game with new characters, it could have worked better. But crammed into this title it fell flat. I stuck with it out of stubbornness as a fan of the first title, but it was a profoundly unenjoyable ride, and that’s why The Last Of Us Part II is the worst game of 2020.

Best Casual Game:

How do we define a “casual” game? It’s a difficult one, and it’s one of those contentious topics where fans of a title who may have spent hundreds of hours in the game world will get upset at hearing their favourite game referred to as “casual.” When it came to choosing titles for this category, I looked at games that could be easily picked up for a short burst, then put down. Games that can be played for a few minutes and that have gameplay suited to that was one of the main criteria. Games in this category also had to be pick-up-and-play. Some casual games can indeed be hard to truly master, but for my money, any game to which we assign the “casual” title has to be accessible and easy to get started with.

So that was how I came to my shortlist. Now let’s look at the runner-up and winner… though if you’ve been a reader all year I doubt you’ll be too surprised!

🥈Runner-up🥈
Fall Guys

Fall Guys seemingly came out of nowhere in August. It wasn’t a title I’d heard of, let alone one I was looking forward to, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. Taking a format inspired by television game-shows like Gladiators or Total Wipeout, the basic gameplay consists of running a series of obstacle courses, looking to be the last one standing at the end to win a crown.

I’m not usually interested in online multiplayer titles, but Fall Guys was something so genuinely different that I was prepared to give it a go. And what I found was a game that was shockingly fun. Each round lasts barely a couple of minutes, meaning even if you don’t qualify it’s not a big deal. Just jump into the next game. Though there are microtransactions, at time of writing they aren’t intrusive and the game is quite generous with the in-game currency given out simply for playing. There are fun cosmetic items to dress up your adorable little jelly bean character in, and the whole game is cute and lots of fun. Though it did have a cheating problem for a while, the addition of anti-cheat software appears to have fixed things. I’m probably about done with Fall Guys as I move on to find new things to watch and play, but I had a wonderful time with it this summer and autumn.

🏆Winner🏆
Animal Crossing: New Horizons

With over 120 hours played, I’ve spent more time this year with Animal Crossing: New Horizons than with the next two games on my list put together. That’s no small accomplishment – even if my 120 hours seems paltry compared to the amount of time some players have put into this title. Time alone doesn’t make a title worthy of winning an award, though. Why Animal Crossing: New Horizons deserves the title is because practically all of those hours were enjoyable.

It’s true that the base game at launch was missing features from past entries in the series, notably 2013’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf. And I find that disappointing, even if updates have since improved the game. But despite the missing content, what the game did have was fantastic, and there really isn’t anything like New Horizons on the market. It’s cute wholesome fun, and the kind of game that can be played for even just a few minutes at a time. It doesn’t demand a huge commitment in the way some titles do – but if you get stuck into it, you’ll find yourself wanting to spend more and more time on your island.

Best Racing Game:

There’s only one game in this category this year, simply because the other racing games I’ve played in 2020 were released in previous years. I had a lot of fun with Forza Horizon 4 in particular, but as a 2018 title it can’t be included here for obvious reasons.

🏆Winner🏆
Hotshot Racing

Congratulations to Hotshot Racing for winning by default! Jokes aside, this game is a lot of fun. An unashamed arcade racer that makes no attempt at realism, it’s fast-paced, exciting, and ridiculous in equal measure! What attracted me to the game when it was released in September was its deliberately mid-90s aesthetic; a beautifully simple art style inspired by racing games of the Sega Saturn and PlayStation 1 era.

At a time when many games feel overpriced, the £15 I paid for Hotshot Racing actually feels cheap! For how much fun the game is, even when simply playing against the AI, it could arguably ask for a lot more money! Speaking of playing against the AI, that’s something Hotshot Racing encourages, and considering how many titles that supposedly offer a single-player mode still try to force players to go online, I appreciated that. In the mid-90s, some games could do four-player split-screen, but many titles were limited to just two players at the most, so racing against the AI was something all gamers had to do; that was just how those games were meant to be played!

As a visual throwback to games past, Hotshot Racing caught my eye. But there’s more to it than just the way it looks, and what’s under that cute retro skin is a genuinely fun arcade racer.

Best Star Wars Game:

It’s unusual for two games in a single franchise to release within a year of each other, but that’s what happened! There was even supposed to be a third Star Wars title this year – Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga – but it was delayed until 2021.

🥈 Runner-up 🥈
Star Wars: Squadrons

Though Squadrons is less arcadey than classic starfighter titles like Rogue Squadron, it’s a remarkably fun game. If you’ve ever dreamed of being a pilot in a galaxy far, far away, this is about as close as you can get! Though I don’t play in VR, the option to use a VR headset – as well as to set up a proper HOTAS or other flight controller on PC – surely makes this the most immersive Star Wars experience out there. Even just with a control pad, though, Squadrons truly transports you to the cockpit of an X-Wing, TIE Fighter, or one of the game’s other starfighters.

The single-player campaign was fun, giving players the opportunity to fight on both sides of the war as the New Republic seeks to defeat the rump Empire – the game is set in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi. I’m not much of a multiplayer gamer, so the fact that there is an AI mode, allowing me to continue to have fun just playing against the computer, is fantastic. I had a truly enjoyable time with Star Wars: Squadrons, and I keep going back for more.

🏆Winner🏆
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

Jedi: Fallen Order was released in November 2019, so including it on this list is a bit of a stretch, I admit. But I got to play it this year, and it was the first game where I fully documented my playthrough. Jedi: Fallen Order managed to feel like a cross between Knights of the Old Republic and the Uncharted series, with protagonist Cal taking on a quest to visit several ancient worlds in search of a Jedi Holocron.

There were twists and turns along the way, but the whole time I felt like I was taking part in a Star Was adventure all my own. After the disappointment of The Rise of Skywalker, playing through Jedi: Fallen Order convinced me that the Star Wars franchise was going to be okay, and that there were still new and original stories worth telling in this universe.

The gameplay was great too, with lots of exciting action and lightsabre-swinging as Cal took on the forces of the Empire. I won’t spoil the ending if you haven’t played it for yourself, but Jedi: Fallen Order was a wild and incredible ride, and one I heartily recommend.

Best Action or Adventure Game:

This category ended up with two first-person shooters, but I’m keeping the name the same! There were many great action, adventure, and first-person shooter titles released this year, and I didn’t have time to play all of them. Here are the two I enjoyed most.

🥈 Runner-up 🥈
Doom Eternal

The sequel to the wonderful 2016 reboot of Doom is just fantastic. Gone is the horror vibe that Doom 3 mistakenly introduced, and instead what you get is action and excitement – with some interesting platforming sections thrown in for good measure. There is a story, of course, but unlike many games I’m not really all that interested in it. I come to games like Doom Eternal to feel like a demon-killing badass, and that’s precisely what the game offers.

There was a lot of fun to be had in the days leading up to Doom Eternal’s launch, as it coincided with the launch of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I greatly enjoyed the memes and artwork created by folks on the internet, depicting Doom Guy and characters from the Animal Crossing series together! All in all, this is just a fast-paced, fun shooter that doesn’t try to be anything more. It isn’t a jack-of-all-trades; it does one thing and does it to perfection.

🏆Winner🏆
Halo: The Master Chief Collection

Throughout 2020, developers 343 Industries have brought the Halo series to PC. Halo: Reach arrived late last year, and in the months since we’ve gotten every other title in the series – except for Halo 5! It had been a long time since I played Halo: Combat Evolved on the original Xbox, and I had a lot of fun rediscovering the series and enjoying it all over again. The updated graphics improved the experience in a lot of ways, but it was also fun (and innovative) to be able to switch between visual styles on the fly.

I hadn’t played either Halo 3: ODST or Halo 4, so I not only got to recreate my Halo experience from years past, but expand on it too. The setting the series uses is as unique and interesting as any sci-fi video game I’ve played, and I’m very curious to see what Halo Infinite can bring to the series when it’s eventually ready.

Television Shows:

There have been some wonderful television shows this year. While the pandemic led to the shutdown of cinemas and a delay in many films being released, a lot of television shows were able to press ahead – at least, those that had completed filming before the worst effects were felt. I hoped to include more categories, such as best miniseries, but time got away from me and I have a number of shows still on my list of things to watch!

Worst Television Series:

Luckily there’s only one in this category! If I’m not enjoying a television series I tend to just stop watching – unless there seems to be a real prospect of improvement. Likewise, if I feel something won’t be to my taste I’ll just skip it; life is too short, after all, for bad entertainment. That said, there are exceptions, and I found one in 2020.

🏆Winner🏆
Supernatural

Supernatural is the king of running too long – a crown it inherited from The Big Bang Theory! Fifteen years ago, when it debuted, there was a great premise as brothers Sam and Dean Winchester set out to hunt ghosts and monsters, all the while keeping an eye out for the demon that killed their mother and Sam’s girlfriend.

But by the time the show reached its third season, many of its ongoing storylines had concluded. The writers began reaching for new and different demons and creatures for Sam and Dean to tackle, and the quality dipped. By the time the show crossed over into the self-congratulatory fan-servicey mess it has been in recent seasons it had just become ridiculous; a parody of itself.

As the seasons dragged on, writers began pumping more and more Biblical themes into Supernatural, transforming its protagonists into invincible prophets anointed by God. An episode a few seasons back saw Sam and Dean cross over into a world where their adventures are a television show in what has to be one of the worst examples of fan-service I’ve ever seen.

Thankfully Supernatural has now wrapped up its final season. I tuned back in – against my better judgement – to see if the impending end of the series would make a difference to its quality. But it didn’t, and I stand by something I’ve been saying for years: many television shows have a natural lifespan. Supernatural had maybe three decent seasons, and should certainly have ended a long time ago.

Best Animated Series:

🥈 Runner-up 🥈
Rick & Morty

We got five episodes of Rick & Morty in 2020; the back half of Season 4, which had premiered last year. The show’s entire premise is wacky, sometimes over-the-top humour, and that doesn’t always stick the landing, especially when the creative team have been working on it for seven years already. So with that in mind, I consider four episodes out of five being decent to be a pretty good run.

When the show stopped flying under the radar and really hit the mainstream in 2017, there was a fear perhaps that the newfound popularity would lead to changes. But I don’t really think that’s happened, and I wouldn’t say that this year’s episodes were substantially different to those in past seasons. They weren’t necessarily any better, but certainly no worse.

There were some great jokes, some hilarious moments, and some weird and wonderful aliens as Rick and Morty (along with Summer, Jerry, and Beth) took off on their interdimensional adventures.

🏆Winner🏆
Star Trek: Lower Decks

It could hardly be anything else, right? Building on the success of both the Star Trek franchise and animated comedies like Rick and Morty, Star Trek: Lower Decks represented the franchise’s biggest attempt to try something new – and arguably its biggest risk – in a very long time. Despite the controversy surrounding Lower Decks’ lack of an international broadcast, judging the series on merit it was a very enjoyable ride.

There were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in Lower Decks, but more than that, the show paid homage to my personal favourite era of Star Trek – the 24th Century. There were so many callbacks and references to events in The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager and the series managed to feel like Star Trek while at the same time having an overtly comedic style.

While its sense of humour won’t be to everyone’s taste, there’s no denying that Lower Decks was made by fans for fans, and I’m really excited to see its second season whenever that may come – especially now that the show’s international broadcast has been settled meaning that fans everywhere can enjoy it together.

Best Live-Action Television Series:

🥈 Runner-up 🥈
Cobra

Right at the beginning of the year I watched Cobra, a British thriller about a government dealing with the aftermath of a disaster. Such an interesting fictional concept, I thought. How innocent we were back then, eh?

Cobra wasn’t what I expected. Having read the pre-release marketing I was expecting a disaster series, something dealing with an apocalyptic event. Instead it’s much more of a thriller with elements of political drama. Even though that was completely not what I expected, I had an enjoyable time with the series.

Robert Carlyle – who plays the role of a British Prime Minister clearly inspired by Tony Blair – is an actor I’ve always felt was underrated. I saw him a few years ago in a miniseries called Hitler: The Rise of Evil, and ever since I’ve found him to be a decent actor who can take on a variety of roles. He was the star of Cobra – but didn’t overwhelm the series. It was an entertaining ride with some truly tense moments.

🏆Winner🏆
Star Trek: Picard

This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed my articles and columns this year! Star Trek: Picard did something I’d been desperately wanting the franchise to do for basically twenty years: move forward. Since Enterprise premiered shortly after the turn of the millennium, Star Trek has looked backwards, with all of its attention focused on prequels and reboots. Many of those stories were great, don’t get me wrong, but I wanted to know what came next, and Picard scratched that itch.

But its premise alone would not make it the best television series of the year! Star Trek: Picard told an engaging, mysterious story as the retired Admiral Picard set out on a new adventure. The story touched on contemporary themes of artificial intelligence, isolationism, and mental health, and was an enthralling watch. Though it stumbled as the first season drew to a close, the first eight episodes were outstanding, and have hopefully laid the groundwork not only for future seasons and more adventures with Picard and his new crew, but also for further Star Trek stories set at the dawn of the 25th Century.

It’s difficult to pick out one individual episode and say it was the best the season had to offer, because Star Trek: Picard is designed to be watched from beginning to end as one continuous story. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try!

Star Trek Episodes:

2020 was the first year since 1998 with three Star Trek productions, so there’s a lot of episodes to choose from! As Trekkies we’re spoilt for choice at the moment – long may that continue! This year I reviewed every single Star Trek episode that was broadcast. The year began with Picard in late January, then Lower Decks came along in August, and finally Discovery premiered in mid-October.

Worst Episode:

There weren’t a lot of options here, because the quality of modern Star Trek has been high. That said, every Star Trek show has misfires and duds from time to time, and this year was no exception.

🥈 Runner-up 🥈
Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1 (Star Trek: Picard)

After an incredibly strong start, Star Trek: Picard stumbled as its first season drew to a close. My primary complaint about Et in Arcadia Ego as a whole (aside from that godawful gold makeup they used for the synths) was that it introduced too many new characters and storylines, most of which didn’t get enough screen time to properly develop. The first part of a finale needs to bring together everything that’s already happened, not dump an awful lot of new things onto the audience, but that’s what Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1 did.

The episode was also very poorly-paced, which is down to a combination of scripting and editing. The story jumped from point to point without sufficient time for the audience to digest what was going on. It also skipped over what should’ve been massive emotional moments, like Picard and Soji learning Hugh’s fate, or Elnor learning of Picard’s illness. Dr Soong and Sutra in particular needed more development and more screen time – though Isa Briones’ terrible, one-dimensional performance means that’s something I’m half-glad we didn’t get!

Overall, this was Picard’s worst episode by far. The aesthetic, editing, and pacing were all wrong, and if the story of Season 1 wanted to include all of these new characters, factions, and settings, we needed not only more episodes, but to have brought them in much earlier.

🏆 Winner 🏆
Envoys (Star Trek: Lower Decks)

Envoys’ opening sequence, in which Ensign Mariner kidnaps a sentient energy lifeform “for a laugh,” was the closest I came to switching off Star Trek’s second animated series and not going back. Where Lower Decks succeeded was in making the regular goings-on in Starfleet comical. Where it failed was in attempting to set up Ensign Mariner as Star Trek’s answer to Rick Sanchez (from Rick & Morty). This sequence encapsulated all of Mariner’s worst qualities, and was about as un-Star Trek as it’s possible to get.

It’s a shame, because the episode’s B-plot starred Ensign Rutherford in what was one of his better stories as he hopped from role to role aboard the ship, trying out different postings in different departments. The main story stuck with Mariner and Boimler, and derived much of its attempted humour from her mean-spirited selfishness. The ending of the episode did go some way to humanising Mariner, and arguably set the stage for her becoming a much more likeable character across the remainder of the season. But that opening sequence in particular is awful, and is the main reason why I’m crowing Envoys as the worst Star Trek episode of the year.

Best Episode:

This is a much more fun category than the one above! And there are plenty of candidates. All three shows managed to have some real gems, and picking just two was not an easy task.

🥈 Runner-up 🥈
Far From Home (Star Trek: Discovery)

After Michael Burnham arrived in the 32nd Century in the season premiere, Far From Home saw Discovery and the rest of the crew arrive too. We were treated to an excellent crash landing sequence that was reminiscent of Voyager’s fourth season episode Timeless, and we got an interesting storyline which saw Saru and the crew forced to adapt to a very different and difficult future.

Saru and Tilly both stepped up, and the dynamic between these two characters has been continued through the rest of the season. As two main characters who hadn’t spent a huge amount of time together before this episode, their relationship was somewhat new and very interesting. Saru stepped up to become the captain we all hoped he could be in Far From Home, and Tilly showed us that there’s more to her than mere comic relief.

As the second half of the series premiere, Far From Home does a lot of world-building, establishing the violent, chaotic nature of the 32nd Century. It was also rare in that it was a Star Trek: Discovery episode with practically no input from Burnham – something which allowed many other crew members to shine in unexpected ways.

🏆Winner🏆
Remembrance (Star Trek: Picard)

I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for a Star Trek episode than I was for Remembrance. This was the moment Star Trek returned to the 24th Century for the first time since 2002’s Nemesis – and it was the first time the overall story of the Star Trek galaxy had moved forward since we heard about the destruction of Romulus in 2009’s Star Trek.

Children of Mars – the Short Treks episode that served as a prologue to Picard – had been somewhat of a let-down, so there was a lot riding on Remembrance as far as I was concerned! And I’m so happy to report that it delivered. It was mysterious and exciting, with moments of tension and action, and although the now-retired Admiral Picard was not exactly the same as he was the last time we saw him, flickers of the man we knew were still there.

Remembrance set the stage beautifully for Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard. It took things slow and didn’t overwhelm us with storylines and heavy plot all at once. By the end of the episode we’d only really met two of the season’s principal characters. Perhaps seen in the light of the rushed finale this could be argued to be a mistake, and that we needed to get a quicker start. But I don’t think I agree with that assessment; Remembrance is perfect the way it is, and probably the best single episode of television I saw all year.

Films:

Let’s be blunt for a moment: 2020 has been a catastrophic year for the film industry. So many titles that should have been released simply didn’t come out due to the pandemic, and as a result it’s been slim pickings. A few bigger titles managed to premiere in January or February before the worst effects hit, but since the end of February very few titles have come out. We’ve missed out on films like No Time To Die, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and Dune, all of which have been delayed to 2021. And there will be ramifications for years to come, as titles planned for 2021 are being pushed to 2022, and so on.

There have been some titles that managed to come out this year, and from my selfish point-of-view, I’m happy that more have come straight to streaming! My health is poor, and one thing that I sadly can’t do any more is get to the cinema (I haven’t been able to for several years). So in that sense I don’t feel that I personally have missed out in quite the same way! However, the massively-curtailed release schedule has had an effect, and as a result I don’t really have a lot of titles to choose from for this section of the awards. In another year I might’ve split up the films into several genres, but instead we just have three categories.

Worst Film:

Luckily there’s only one film in this category this year. If you recall my review of it from the spring, it perhaps won’t be a surprise!

🏆Winner🏆
Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

The Rise of Skywalker is saved from being the worst Star Wars film solely by the existence of The Phantom Menace – and it’s not always clear which is worse. The clumsy insertion of Palpatine into a story that was clearly not supposed to have anything to do with him is perhaps the worst example of corporate-mandated fan service I’ve ever seen. Not only does Palpatine ruin The Rise of Skywalker, but the revelation that he’s been manipulating the entire story of Star Wars from behind the scenes undermines every other story that the cinematic franchise has tried to tell. It was a monumentally bad decision; the worst kind of deus ex machina. And his presence wasn’t even explained.

But while Palpatine stank up the plot, he wasn’t the only problem in The Rise of Skywalker. The ridiculously choppy editing meant no scene lasted more than a few seconds, leaving the audience no time to digest what was happening. There was some truly awful dialogue. General Hux’s story makes no sense at all and was totally out of character. Rose Tico was sidelined, despite her character being a huge part of the previous film. Palpatine’s plan – and his decision to announce it to the galaxy before enacting it – makes no sense. The stupid limitation to his fleet also makes no sense. Rey’s character arc across the trilogy was ruined by the decision to listen to bad fan theories. Poe and Finn basically did nothing of consequence. And the scenes with Leia – I’m sorry to say given Carrie Fisher’s untimely demise – were so obviously lifted from another film that it was painful.

JJ Abrams ran around undoing so many storylines from The Last Jedi that The Rise of Skywalker felt like two films haphazardly smashed together, but cut down to the runtime of a single picture. There was an occasional moment where either something funny happened or perhaps the nostalgia hit hard, but otherwise it was a total failure, and by far the worst film I’ve seen all year.

Best Animated Film:

🥈Runner-up🥈
Frozen II

Disney does not have a good track record when it comes to sequels. Most of the time their big animated features are one-offs, with any sequels being relegated to direct-to-video offerings. But Frozen had been such a cultural landmark after its 2013 release that a sequel was, perhaps, inevitable. And far from being an afterthought, Frozen II was a film that equalled – and occasionally surpassed – its illustrious predecessor.

There was some fantastic animation work in Frozen II, such as the effects used for the fog. There was less snow than in the first film, and the snow in Frozen was beautiful, so that’s a shame in a way! The soundtrack was fantastic too, with several catchy songs that are well worth listening to.

Frozen II’s story was engrossing and genuinely interesting, and unlike some Disney sequels managed to avoid feeling tacked-on. The parents of the two sisters at the heart of the story had been killed early in the first film – and Frozen II saw them learn more about what happened to them, as well as discovering the source of Elsa’s powers.

🏆Winner🏆
Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe

Phineas and Ferb went off the air in 2015, and as Disney Channel shows are usually one-and-done affairs I didn’t expect to see it return. But Candace Against the Universe premiered in August on Disney+ and was absolutely amazing.

After a five-year break the film brought back practically everything that made Phineas and Ferb great. There was a wacky but fun plot that brought together the kids and Dr Doofenshmirtz, there were some great musical numbers, and above all a deep story that had heart. Candace – the sister of the titular Phineas and Ferb – took centre-stage in a story that made depression accessible to even the film’s young target audience. It ended by telling a story that showed kids that they don’t have to be the centre of the universe to matter, and I think that’s an incredibly powerful message.

I’m a big advocate of sensitive depictions of mental health in entertainment. Not every story has to touch on the subject, of course, but Candace Against the Universe did – and it did so in a way that was relatable and understandable. But beyond that, it was a fun return to a series I thought was over. It’s possible the film could be the springboard for more Phineas and Ferb, but even if it isn’t I’m still glad we got to see it.

Best Live-Action Film:

Ordinarily I’d try to split up films by genre, and at least have sections for comedy, sci-fi, and maybe one or two others. But so few films have staggered out the door this year that there’s not really a lot of choice. As I’ve seen so few new films I just picked my top two. It wasn’t even all that difficult.

🥈Runner-up🥈
Sonic the Hedgehog

In any other year, Sonic the Hedgehog wouldn’t have got a look-in as one of the best releases. But this is 2020, and as we’ve already discussed, there aren’t a lot of options. After receiving backlash for its visual effects when the first trailer was released in 2019, the creative team behind Sonic the Hedgehog went back to the drawing board and redesigned the titular Sega mascot, bringing him closer to his video game appearance. The willingness of the studio to delay the project in response to fan criticism is appreciated, especially when many other studios have chosen to double-down in the face of such backlash.

The film itself is surprisingly fun, though as with 1993’s Super Mario Bros., features a storyline quite far-removed from the video game franchise it’s inspired by. Jim Carrey hasn’t exactly disappeared in recent years, but has been nowhere near as ubiquitous as he was in his late-90s heyday, so his performance here feels like a return to form. And that’s all I have to say, really. It was a fun film, and an enjoyable way to kill a couple of hours. Is Sonic the Hedgehog going to be hailed as a classic of modern cinema alongside Lincoln and Bohemian Rhapsody? Of course not. But out of the available titles this year, it’s one of the best.

🏆Winner🏆
1917

Now for a complete change of tone! 1917 was released in December last year, and is a truly epic war film that missed out on winning any of the top Academy Awards. However, despite the snub by the Oscars, it’s an outstanding piece of historical cinema, and though its novel “one-take” style of editing was perhaps less impressive than I expected it to be, it was nevertheless interesting.

I fully expect 1917 to be considered a classic of the war genre in decades to come, such is its quality. At its core is an emotional story of two young men thrown into a gut-wrenching situation. The First World War was one of the worst and bloodiest in history, yet few films have depicted that horror with such brutal accuracy as 1917.

Though it isn’t the kind of popcorn flick you’ll want to watch a dozen times in a row, 1917 is artistic and inspired in all the ways that matter. From the performances to the costuming to the camera work, every tiny detail has been honed and perfected. Director Sam Mendes deserves a lot of credit for putting together this masterpiece.

Announcements:

In this final section I’ll briefly cover a handful of announcements for upcoming productions that got me excited in 2020. There are so many interesting projects in the works, and while some of these may not see the light of day until 2022 or even later, they’re still genuinely appealing and I’m keeping my ear to the ground listening for news!

Video Games:

🥈Runner-up🥈
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

I’d been hoping for an announcement of the remastered Mass Effect trilogy ever since rumours of its existence began to swirl earlier in the year. Though EA and Bioware kept us waiting, the remaster was finally announced a short time ago and is due for release in 2021. Whether it will really tick all the boxes, and whether enough time has passed for a remaster to feel like a substantial improvement are both open questions… but I’m very interested to find out!

🏆Winner🏆
Hogwarts Legacy

It’s been a long time since a video game announcement got me so excited – and an even longer time since anything in set in the Wizarding World did! Hogwarts Legacy looks like a game with great potential – telling a new story set decades before the Harry Potter books. It also seems to be a game that offers a great degree of player choice. That combination worked very well for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and I think it could do wonderful things here.

Television Shows:

🥈Runner-up🥈
Alien

There’s a television show based on the 1979 classic Alien in development! Practically everything is being turned into a streaming television series right now, so perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise, but I’m truly interested to see what the Alien franchise can do with more than a couple of hours. Television as a medium allows for longer and more complex stories than can fit in a two-hour film, so there’s a lot of potential here.

🏆Winner🏆
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Almost since the moment he beamed aboard Discovery at the beginning of the second season, fans had been clamouring for a Captain Pike series, and Alex Kurtzman and ViacomCBS listened! Strange New Worlds was announced in May, along with a short video from its three principal cast members. The show has already begun production, and while I doubt it’ll see the light of day before 2022, it’s one of the things keeping me going right now!

Films:

🥈Runner-up🥈
The Matrix 4

Though I have no idea where the story of The Matrix 4 could possibly take the series, I’m cautiously interested. Filming has already begun, but was disrupted by – what else – the pandemic. The two sequels to 1999’s The Matrix didn’t quite live up to the first part of the saga, but nevertheless were solid action-sci fi titles. I’m hoping that, after the series has taken a long break and with access to better CGI than was available in the early 2000s, The Matrix 4 will be just as good as the first. Could this be the beginning of a greatly expanded franchise?

🏆Winner🏆
Dune

The first part of this new Dune duology should have been released this month, but because most cinemas remain closed it’s been pushed all the way back to December next year. Dune has previously been difficult to adapt, with at least one attempted film version never making it to screen, but this adaptation has clearly been a labour of love. It seems to feature a great cast, and based on the trailer will have some stunning visual effects. Here’s hoping that it can get the cinematic release that the director and studio hope for.

So that’s it!

Those are my picks for the entertainment highlights of 2020. It’s been a very unusual year in terms of what all of us have been able to watch and listen to. A number of big titles weren’t able to make it to release, especially in the realm of cinema. We’re also going to be feeling the knock-on effects of this disruption well into 2021 and 2022, even if things get back to normal relatively quickly – which hopefully will be the case!

2020 brought Star Trek back to the small screen in a huge way. There literally has not been this much Star Trek to get stuck into for decades, and as a big fan of the franchise I think that’s just fantastic. It’s also been a year which has accelerated the move toward streaming as a main way of accessing content. I wouldn’t like to guess how many cable or satellite subscriptions have been cancelled in favour of Netflix, Disney+, CBS All Access, and the like!

I hope that you managed to find some fun things to watch and play this year – even as the outside world seemed to be falling apart. Entertainment is great escapism, and we all needed some of that in 2020. This may be my last post of the year, so all that remains to be said is this: see you in 2021!

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

Star Wars doubles down HARD

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

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

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

The inclusion of Palpatine ruined The Rise of Skywalker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this guy getting his own spin-off too?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s no easy answer for film studios and cinemas right now

To perhaps nobody’s real surprise, three big films have recently announced delays: No Time to Die, Dune, and The Batman. With the coronavirus pandemic clearly not dying down any time soon – at least in the west – studios quite rightly feel that releasing their titles this year or even early next year won’t bring in audiences and won’t make enough money. They’re not wrong in that assessment; many people I know here in the UK would be uncomfortable visiting a cinema in person, even if the law or guidelines say that doing so is allowed. It’s going to take time – and, perhaps, a widely-available vaccine – for that mindset to change.

Over the summer, the UK government ran a scheme called “eat out to help out.” If you’re unfamiliar with it, the programme offered diners a 50% discount (up to a maximum of £10 per head) at participating restaurants. The goal was to encourage people anxious about the ongoing pandemic to get back into restaurants and, frankly, save the industry from collapse. It was successful, at least partially, with participating restaurants reporting increased takeup. However, such schemes are temporary, and there’s no way the government could run something like that for every impacted industry.

Cinema bosses have denounced decisions to delay releases – or, in the case of titles like Mulan – send titles directly to streaming platforms. Without big blockbuster releases, there’s no way to entice cinema-goers back, and the entire industry is on the brink. Cineworld, one of the world’s largest cinema chains, has announced it will close all of its US and UK sites until further notice – putting 45,000 people out of work. This is the real impact of the pandemic, and the longer it goes on, the worse it’s going to get.

Dune (2020) has been delayed.

There’s no “eat out to help out” equivalent coming to cinemas. The industry is on its own to handle the fallout from the pandemic – as are so many others – and there’s no easy fix. Until the public at large have confidence that it’s safe to go out, that it’s safe to sit in a big room with a couple of hundred strangers, there’s nothing that can be done. Even the release of Tenet in August failed to bring in sufficient numbers of viewers to make running a cinema financially viable. At this rate, the highest-grossing film of 2020 will remain Bad Boys for Life. Nobody would have predicted that in January!

I can understand from the cinemas’ perspective that film studios aren’t behaving appropriately. Cinemas and film studios are two parts of a greater whole, yet the studios have unilaterally acted to pull their films, either delaying them or sending them directly to streaming. And I can understand why that’s going to sting. Where there could have been a coming together, it feels like the bigger companies are acting selfishly; it’s everyone for themselves instead of a sense of community and togetherness.

And ultimately that’s going to make things more difficult. We’ve already seen Odeon, another large cinema chain, pledge to stop showing films from Universal Pictures in retaliation for Universal making Trolls World Tour a streaming-only title. As I wrote when looking at Mulan’s release on Disney+, if every cinema chain were to come together and announce a boycott of companies that acted this way, they could effectively prevent the release of any film they chose. There’s power in working together, but ultimately the question will be: who has that power?

Mulan (2020) went straight to Disney+, upsetting cinema chains worldwide.

Film studios clearly see streaming as a viable option. As television screen technology continues to improve – and as screens get larger – the adage that a particular film was “better in the cinema” doesn’t ring true for a lot of people any more. In some ways, the move towards streaming is something we can absolutely argue was coming anyway; like with many things, the pandemic may have accelerated the move, but it didn’t fundamentally cause it. Titles like Annihilation and the critically-acclaimed The Irishman began production with the intention of a theatrical release, but circumstances changed and they ended up going to Netflix instead.

Streaming titles have also been nominated for top awards, and when a film is released digitally nowadays, it’s become so commonplace that it scarcely gets a mention in reviews. When people of my parents’ generation were young, going to the cinema was at least a weekly outing, and not only was there an A- and B-movie but you’d probably also get a newsreel too. Those days have gone, and for increasing numbers of people pre-pandemic, the cinema was an occasional treat rather than a regular one. Attendance has been steady, but the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, and big-budget television series like Game of Thrones have slowly been eroding the need for cinemas. In short, if cinemas try to pick a fight with film studios over digital releases, I think they’ll likely lose.

But for film studios it’s not as clear-cut. Selling an already-made film to the likes of Netflix is a complicated undertaking. Netflix wants to make sure any purchase is going to be worth its while, and the gold standard is whether a title will bring in new subscribers. As a result, I think it’s not unfair to say that a lot of films would likely make more money at the box office than on a streaming platform. That’s why Mulan costs $30 instead of being available to anyone with a Disney+ account; Disney wants to make as much of the film’s budget back as possible.

Bringing a film to Netflix – or any streaming platform – is not straightforward and will not make as much money, in most cases, as a theatrical release.

Making a film is an expensive project, and the vast majority of any title’s money is made at the box office, not through streaming or sales. If film studios were to move to streaming-only releases, a lot of things would have to change. Budgets may have to fall in some cases, which would not only be to the detriment of the quality of films, but would also put more people in the industry out of work.

As I said at the beginning, there is no easy answer. Streaming is a short-term solution that may be viable for some projects, but certainly can’t replace the revenue of a full theatrical release for most titles. Mulan was a test case, but as a film that has received mixed reviews at best, it perhaps isn’t the best example for studios to look to. And besides, most film studios don’t have their own streaming platforms, meaning they have to negotiate with the likes of Amazon or Netflix to put their titles out.

One thing that history teaches us about the longer-term effects of a disaster on any industry is that things do eventually get back to normal. If one big cinema chain were to go out of business this year, within five years or so most of its empty cinemas will have been bought up and reopened by some other company. The desire for going to the cinema may not be present right now, but it will largely return when the pandemic is brought under control. At least, that’s the way I see it. Streaming has already been disruptive, but there’s still a sense of enjoyment in going to the cinema, and from the point of view of studios, streaming is far less profitable. That means that as soon as they can, film studios will want to encourage people to get back to the cinema.

How long the pandemic will continue to drag on, and how long studios and cinema owners can hang in there are the big questions right now. And unfortunately those are the same questions people are asking across many different sectors of the economy. When the pandemic is brought under control – and it will be, sooner or later – how many businesses will have survived? And how long will it take to rebuild? From the point of view of films, are we about to enter a “dark age” where budgets and quality drop? I don’t have a good answer to any of these questions. Only time will tell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liu Yifei in the 2020 remake of Mulan.

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

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

No, not that kind of piracy…

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

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

Cinema owners will protest this decision vehemently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten of my favourite Disney films

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers for the Disney films on this list.

Disney+ finally reached the UK in March, several months after its US release. I was actually already a subscriber to a different Disney streaming service, Disney Life, and had been for a while, but Disney+ is better-organised, sharper, and does offer more content. Given that you may find yourself with some time on your hands at the moment, it could be a good moment to check out this streaming platform – and I believe it’s free to try for seven days.

I don’t intend for this to be a review of Disney+, but just to discuss it in a little more detail, the service delivers what it promises. Disney’s library of films – including from brands now under the Disney umbrella like Marvel and Star Wars – and Disney Channel original television shows. There’s also a limited amount of content from National Geographic, including some documentaries made specifically for Disney+. I hope to see them add more to this in future, as I love a good documentary. There are also a couple of original shows, including the first live-action Star Wars show, The Mandalorian. But save yourself time on that one because I’ve honestly not seen such a boring series in a long time.

As a childless adult man fast approaching middle-age, I admit I still feel a certain embarrassment at admitting I’m a huge Disney fan. Perhaps that’s a product of the time and place I grew up, as nowadays it seems far more acceptable! Disney has created some of the best animated feature films of all time, and even today, almost a century on from when Walt and Roy founded the company, Disney sets the bar that other animation studios wish they could reach. In the last couple of decades, the company has greatly expanded both its content and the brands it owns, growing to become one of the biggest and most powerful entertainment companies in the world.

For this list, I’ll be picking ten of my favourite Disney animated films. This isn’t a “Top Ten” ranked list; instead these are just ten films I really enjoy and I’ll be listing them in order of release. All of them are available to watch on Disney+ if you’re lucky enough to live in a part of the world where the service is already live. If not, I daresay you can find copies on DVD, Blu-ray, or by, shall we say, other means… matey.

So without further ado, let’s jump into the list. Please be aware that spoilers may be present, and that a couple of the entries on this list may have scenes that are outdated and/or insensitive.

Number 1: Peter Pan (1953)

The titular Peter Pan.

There’s a ride at Disney World – and I believe at other Disney parks too – based on 1953’s Peter Pan called Peter Pan’s Flight. If you ever find yourself at the Magic Kingdom I highly recommend it; it’s one of my favourite rides there.

By 1953 Disney was already well-established as the best studio in town for animation. Peter Pan retells – faithfully, at least by Disney standards – the JM Barrie story, which had been a play in 1904 and a novel in 1911. You know the story, of course: Peter Pan lives in Neverland, a place where children never grow up, and has adventures with the Lost Boys while trying to stay one step ahead of his pirate nemesis, Captain Hook. It’s a story which has become a classic, in fact it already was a classic when it was given the Disney treatment. Disney films have been incredibly successful using this formula – taking a classic story and presenting it in a child-friendly manner. In 1953 that explanation described a good portion of Disney’s back catalogue, as indeed it still does today.

Peter Pan introduces a number of characters who would become Disney favourites, including Captain Hook, who is, in some respects, the archetypal film pirate even today (though the “pirate accent” is based on another film of the 1950s, Treasure Island). Tinker Bell, Peter’s fairy friend whose magical dust allows him and the children to fly, also debuts here. Tinker Bell has become a legend in her own right in the wider Disney universe, and is the subject of numerous spin-offs including her own film series.

One thing that always surprises me about older Disney films is how good the animation is – even rendered in full HD on a big-screen television. I was downright shocked to learn, in my youth, that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was as old as it was; it still holds up today. As does Peter Pan – the animation, which was all hand-drawn and hand-painted, looks amazing and hasn’t aged a day. Unlike some computer-animated titles, Peter Pan and other hand-drawn films are timeless.

The story is a pure-hearted swashbuckling adventure, as Peter and Wendy lead the Lost Boys to victory against the nefarious Captain Hook. Some of the scenes and references are undeniably dated by today’s standards – I’m thinking in particular of the way Wendy’s leadership is only seen as something maternal, and of course the now-infamous portrayal of Tiger Lily and the Native American tribe. I don’t believe, however, that either of those things are reason to hide Peter Pan or try to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Number 2: The Aristocats (1970)

Abraham de Lacey Giuseppe Casey Thomas O’Malley… O’Malley the Alley Cat!

Often overlooked, as it came out only three years after the incredibly-successful The Jungle Book, The Aristocats is nevertheless a brilliant and fun film with some great musical numbers. Production began shortly before Walt’s death in 1966, and thus The Aristocats is the last film he actively worked on and approved before passing away.

1961’s 101 Dalmations had proven a great success as an adventure story with animal protagonists and human villains, and that basic formula was reused for The Aristocats too. When a rich older lady decides to leave her fortune to her cats – instead of to her butler – he schemes to get rid of them to get his hands on her money. Taking the cats far away from their home, they meet a fun and eclectic cast of characters on their journey home.

As someone with several cats of my own, I do enjoy a good cat-themed story! And while The Aristocats doesn’t do anything radically different or new in terms of its animation style or story – both of which are comparable to Disney’s earlier output – it’s a sweet film that’s greatly enjoyable. Its music celebrates the jazz era of its 1910s-20s setting, and there’s a distinctly old-fashioned feel throughout – but not in a negative way.

There are some great musical numbers, all of which fit into that jazz/swing theme, as the cats make their way home. Marie, one of the kittens, has become a permanent fixture on Disney merchandise, though many of the younger people picking up those items haven’t seen The Aristocats in full! If that applies to you or your little ones, I definitely recommend sitting down to watch the film.

Number 3: Robin Hood (1973)

The Lion King! Oh wait, wrong film.

I mentioned at the beginning that this list doesn’t rank the films in order of how much I like them, but if it did, Robin Hood would be the undisputed number one. It’s my all-time favourite Disney film. Purely from a subjective point of view, of course!

Disney’s output between the “classic” era of the 1930s-50s and the “Renaissance” of the late 1980s-90s that we’ll look at in a moment is often ignored by fans today, and I think that’s a great shame. Perhaps it’s because I grew up on titles like Robin Hood, but I think that it has a lot to offer.

The hand-drawn animation retains much of the Disney charm of years gone by, and though it doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table compared to earlier titles, it still looks fantastic today – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! There was some recycling present in the film’s animation – most notably in the character of Little John, which is a copy of Baloo, the bear from 1967’s The Jungle Book. In fact, both characters are actually voiced by the same actor – Phil Harris, who also voiced Thomas O’Malley in The Aristocats – which further drives home the point. Even this recycling was actually Disney being cutting-edge; the process used to make exact copies of drawings was an early precursor to photocopying.

Robin Hood is a classic story, an old-world legend of a bandit who steals only to turn around and give away his money to the poor people in the community. In Disney’s adaptation, all of the characters are anthropomorphic animals, but otherwise the story doesn’t really stray too far from the confines of its source material. The inept Prince John – represented by a cowardly thumb-sucking lion, which as a kid I found to be absolutely hilarious – and his evil cohort are outsmarted by Robin and his brave Merry Men. Disney has always been great at using animals perfectly – portraying the Prince’s adviser as a sneaky snake, and the Sheriff’s men as wolves and vultures is definitely a great example of that!

The opening of Robin Hood introduces one of my favourite Disney songs, too – the beautiful Oo-De-Lally.

Number 4: Beauty and the Beast (1991)

The Beast!

After The Little Mermaid revived both the fortunes and reputation of Disney animation in 1989, a period known as the “Disney Renaissance” kicked off, in which the studio churned out a series of films which were both critical and commercial hits. Beauty and the Beast is the second of these films, and it’s amazing.

One of the first animated feature films to use CGI, Beauty and the Beast is groundbreaking in that regard, and the lessons Disney learned about computer animation would bear fruit later in the decade with releases like Toy Story. In that sense, Beauty and the Beast is a very important moment in the history not just of Disney, but of animated films and indeed all of cinema – as CGI has gone on to be massively important in all kinds of titles.

Beauty and the Beast managed to tell an engrossing story that was tense and dramatic, as a cursed prince learns to love for the first time. After a spell was put on him, a prince and his household staff (which seems a tad unfair to them!) were cursed to live as non-human objects, with the prince himself turned into a monster. Belle, a social outcast in her village, falls for him while in captivity.

By making Belle the protagonist, Disney has changed up its traditional princess formula. Belle is a “commoner”; a girl from the village as opposed to aristocratic or royal by birth. She’s disliked and gossiped about for enjoying reading and being intelligent, and with these points Beauty and the Beast says that it’s okay to be smart, and that any girl can be a princess – being a princess is less about where you come from than about being a good person, a theme which has carried through other Disney titles in some ways.

Number 5: Aladdin (1992)

Aladdin and Abu.

Aladdin marked Disney’s first real attempt to make a major film based on a non-European or American legend. It’s a title which marked a change in the way Disney operated, and a risk which could have backfired. It’s a title which is now famous for the Genie – voiced by Robin Williams close to the peak of his career – who has gone on to be a major character in Disney’s merchandise empire.

The story of Aladdin was perhaps uniquely suited to get the Disney treatment as a non-European legend, as it was quite well-known even in Europe and North America, and had been for many years. I remember, as a child, seeing a pantomime version of Aladdin before the film came out. It was probably one of the very few stories from “elsewhere” that Disney could have readily adapted, at least at the time. Nowadays, with the exception of those people who want to screech “cultural appropriation!” at everything, making stories from all across the world into Disney films is something we’ve come to expect and would be fine with; in 1992 it was something different and its success was less than certain. In that sense, Aladdin paved the way for future titles – like Mulan and Moana.

Following The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin kept the “Renaissance” going, winning critical and commercial acclaim for its fun characters, great musical numbers, and exciting storyline. The Genie was, of course, the breakout star – though apparently Williams and Disney didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things during the film’s production and marketing. It would also win two Oscars, and became the highest-earning film of 1992.

There would be two direct-to-video sequels to Aladdin – the first of which, The Return of Jafar, is a rare example of one of these Disney sequels being a success (at least in my opinion!) The film would be remade in 2019 in a live-action format, and while it lacks much of the character of the original, it remains probably the most watchable of the live-action remakes.

Number 6: The Lion King (1994)

Simba and Mufasa in The Lion King.

For many people, The Lion King’s 1994 release was the high-water mark of the Disney Renaissance, and while there will always be a debate on that front, what shouldn’t be contentious is that this film is fantastic. A star-studded cast, including James Earl Jones, bring the characters to life, and Elton John provided an incredible soundtrack, resulting in The Lion King being spun-off to create a long-running West End and Broadway musical.

There was, at the time, some degree of controversy regarding how similar The Lion King was to a Japanese series called Kimba the White Lion, with some fans of the manga/anime franchise going so far as to accuse Disney of ripping off a significant amount of material. Whether you believe this was intentional or not, it’s worth noting that there are similarities in terms of plot and certain characters – I’ll leave the final judgement on that up to you.

The Lion King billed itself as the first ever Disney film to be a wholly original story. Setting aside the Kimba controversy, this marked a change in the way Disney would approach writing stories for its major motion pictures, and while the studio would return many times to legends, history, and existing works of fiction, The Lion King laid the groundwork for future original stories.

The cast included Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, and Whoopi Goldberg among other stars, and while The Lion King is Simba’s story, the whole main cast gets a turn in the spotlight, including being able to sing. Many of the film’s songs have become well-known classics, often heard on playlists and CDs representing the best of Disney music.

Number 7: Pocahontas (1995)

Colors of the Wind is the best-remembered song from Pocahontas.

Pocahontas remains an outlier in the Disney canon. Other films are based on folklore, legends, and other published works, but the characters in Pocahontas were all real people – people whose lives are surprisingly well-documented. As you may know if you’re a regular, I’m somewhat of a history buff, and the early 1600s – the period in which Pocahontas is set – is really when record-keeping in England had begun to vastly improve in quality. Records of England’s first colony in mainland North America were meticulous, and while some information has been lost over time, for the most part we know a lot about John Smith, Pocahontas, and others who lived at the time.

The film takes a lot of liberties with the real-life story, which is always a contentious topic in historical fiction. But if we can set that argument aside, what Disney created is a film that tries very hard to celebrate Native American culture, recognising that they were the victims in Europe’s rush to colonise North America.

Compared to earlier depictions of Native Americans – like the one we talked about in Peter Pan a moment ago – Pocahontas represents them in a much fairer and less stereotypical manner. There is definitely a case of the “noble savage” – the presentation of Native Americans (and other indigenous peoples in other works) as being “better off” without contact, living peaceful, natural lives that were disrupted. Stereotypes like this aren’t always true, and while the song Savages in particular has sometimes been criticised for portraying the conflict between English settlers and Native Americans as if both were equally in the wrong, it’s worth recognising that Native American tribes, like all groups of people everywhere for all of history, could be violent. I feel like I have to justify some of these aspects of Pocahontas, as the film has recently come in for criticism, so I apologise for going off on a tangent.

Following up The Lion King was always going to be tough, and I think for that reason some of the things Pocahontas did very well, in terms of its animation and music to name but two examples, were overshadowed, especially at the time it was released.

Number 8: Lilo and Stitch (2002)

The titular characters.

After seeing Lilo and Stitch in 2002, it was one of the first films I ever bought on DVD. I was so keen to be able to rewatch it that I even bought a DVD-player kit for my Xbox (it was cheaper than buying an actual DVD player at the time) to be able to watch it! I would go on to collect many other DVDs – before the rise of HD and streaming made the whole collection redundant.

The widely-accepted definition of the Disney Renaissance I mentioned earlier puts 1999’s Tarzan as the final film, but I’d absolutely include Lilo and Stitch alongside titles of that era. Unlike the other films of the Renaissance, Lilo and Stitch tells a wholly original story and introduces new characters to the Disney canon. Release of the film was delayed due to the 11th of September attacks in the United States in 2001, with one section of the film’s climax being reworked to avoid comparisons to that atrocity.

Lilo and Stitch steers away from the often-sanitised world of prior Disney titles, showing Lilo and her sister Nani as a dysfunctional family, with Lilo on the cusp of being taken into care by the state. By Disney standards, this was something radical and different, taking a look at the “real” world in a way no prior film really had. This is complemented by the film’s present-day setting. Lilo herself is a misfit – but someone who refuses to change or conform to fit in. The message she sends is that it’s okay for kids to be themselves, and even that it’s okay to be weird – something I wholly embrace!

Stitch is adorable, but also naughty in a way that undoubtedly appeals to kids. As the film progresses, he has a chance to show his good nature and big heart, in a story that tells the audience that genetics and how you’re born doesn’t matter – what matters is being a good person and making the choice to do the right thing. Stitch overcomes his innate badness – the desire to misbehave instilled in him by his creator – thanks to the time he spends with Lilo and her family, choosing at the end to remain with her on Earth.

The film’s soundtrack definitely deserves a mention. While there are a couple of great original songs inspired by the music of Hawaii (where Lilo and Stitch is set), the soundtrack also features several of Elvis Presley’s greatest hits, including greats like Devil in Disguise and Burning Love. As an Elvis fan, I couldn’t be happier about this, and introducing more than one new generation of kids to the music of the King is definitely something great that Lilo and Stitch has done.

Number 9: Frozen (2013)

Anna and her friends meet Olaf for the first time.

When Frozen was released in 2013 I was living overseas for work. While browsing local cinema listings for English-language titles, I spotted Frozen, and it was the first I’d heard of it! Having missed all of the marketing I had no idea what to expect – and I was absolutely blown away.

I’m a big Christmas fan, and being released a few weeks before Christmas and with such a wintry setting, Frozen was absolutely perfect for that time of year. It was the first Disney film I’d seen in years that I felt was on par with some of the studio’s offerings in the 1990s – the height of the “Renaisannce” we’ve already mentioned.

Focusing on two sisters instead of the traditional prince and princess, Frozen shakes up the traditional Disney fairytale formula while keeping things royal for the sake of its Disney Princess brand. It was a change that absolutely worked, and the film’s “one true act of love” being sisterly love instead of romantic love was beautiful.

The big twist that Anna’s beloved Hans is in fact a villain and not the heroic prince charming she thought he was was shocking – and I can still remember the audible gasp from the audience at the cinema at that moment! By Disney standards, this was absolutely stunning, and tied in perfectly to the level-headed reasoning Elsa had shown earlier in the film when she forbade Anna to marry him. Indeed in many ways, Frozen is a film of its time, just as earlier titles were films of theirs. Acutely aware of the fact that its princesses are often seen as role models by young girls, the need to be socially responsible within the story definitely led to some of these decisions.

Frozen also has the best soundtrack of any modern Disney title – with several memorable songs like Do You Want to Build a Snowman, Love is an Open Door, Fixer Upper, and of course Let It Go, which remains an amazing song despite how frequently it was heard for at least a year afterwards… but perhaps parents of young girls would disagree on that point!

I picked Frozen for one of my top ten films of the 2010s when I made a list back in December – you can find the full list by clicking or tapping here.

Number 10: Moana (2016)

Moana aboard her canoe.

In 2016, when it was released, at least some of the hype surrounding Moana was lost due to the release six months earlier of Zootopia – which was retitled, for some stupid and inexplicable reason, Zootropolis in the UK. We’d been used to only seeing one Disney film a year, at most, so this meant that some of the pre-release marketing surrounding Moana didn’t get as much attention as it otherwise might’ve. Zootopia was a big hit, but of the two films released in 2016, Moana was by far the more enjoyable title.

Disney had begun to diversify away from Old-World European fairytales and folklore for its inspiration as far back as Aladdin and Mulan, and had brought in other non-European protagonists and princesses in films like The Princess and the Frog and even Pocahontas, but Moana was the first foray into a lesser-known culture – lesser-known, that is, from the point of view of Disney’s western audience.

The history of Polynesian peoples is long, diverse, and fascinating, with a blurred line between history and legend due to stories being passed down orally. It’s also something most people in the west have never encountered; scattered across small and remote Pacific islands, most Polynesian legends stayed within their own communities or were recorded by academics and anthropologists and never made it into the cultural mainstream. Moana looks at one of these legends and spins it into a Disney tale for the modern age.

Moana is adamant that she isn’t a princess, even reacting angrily when Māui says she is. Where Frozen had finally told a Disney Princess story in which the princesses are the heroines and have genuine agency as characters, Moana amplifies that trend by having just a single protagonist. Her bravery and determination to overcome the obstacles in front of her drives the story forward, and eventually her courage leads her to stand up in the face of a terrifying foe. Moana had help, but ultimately she had to make those decisions and fight those battles – thus out of all the princesses in Disney’s canon, Moana is the bravest and most determined, which is a great message for the film to have.

The film also has a great soundtrack, with several hit tunes such as You’re Welcome going on to be played time and again.

So that’s it. The list doesn’t include live-action Disney films like the Pirates of the Caribbean series, so perhaps we’ll have to come to live-action Disney films on another occasion. However, several of the titles on this list have had live-action remakes – and in my opinion at least, not one of them has managed to live up to the original work. A couple of them are well worth a watch – Aladdin, in particular, was at least a decent film – but none of them come close to recapturing the Disney animation magic, at least not for me.

There are more films on the horizon, with Raya and the Last Dragon being the only one with a title so far, scheduled for release in 2021. Disney+ has, in some respects, changed the way Disney approaches its films and back catalogue. Gone are the days of the “Disney vault”, with titles given only limited home video releases. Instead, the company plans to leave all of its films available all the time, and in some cases will even be experimenting with simultaneous releases in cinemas and on streaming. That has the potential to really shake up the way films are released. From a selfish point of view, as someone who can’t go to the cinema in person any more, I think it’s a positive change. But whether it will work as intended is anyone’s guess.

Several generations of people have now grown up with Disney films – even my parents’ generation, people born in the 1940s and who are now well into their 70s, remember with fondness the Disney films of their childhoods. Which titles someone may prefer is probably, at least in part, dependent on when they grew up and which ones they saw at that time. But each “era” of titles, whether we’re talking about those made before Walt Disney’s death, the “Renaissance” of the 1990s, or the modern films like Frozen all have merit, and while the way they’re made may have changed through the years, the effort and attention to detail has not. Disney remains the market leader in animation because each film is meticulously created. There may be some flops and failures, but broadly speaking, the studio’s output has been phenomenal. The fact that they’re still around and still making films after such a long time is testament to that.

It was great fun making this list, and if it helped you decide what to watch on Disney+, then as Māui said… you’re welcome!

What can I say except “you’re welcome!”

I really hope the Boba Fett rumour isn’t true…

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for Season 1 of The Mandalorian, as well as minor spoilers for other iterations of the Star Wars franchise.

The Disney+ series The Mandalorian was the first subject I wrote about here on the website after I founded it last year. Suffice to say I found the show disappointing and boring, and a lot of that disappointment stemmed from the fact that the show seemingly promised a new and different look at the Star Wars galaxy, but ended up bringing back overused tropes and sending the characters over already-trodden ground. I wanted something new, a look at the Star Wars galaxy away from the Force and familiar characters, but The Mandalorian’s producers at Disney didn’t have the confidence to make a series that stood on its own.

I spotted a rumour earlier today, which has apparently been doing the rounds over the last 24 hours or so, that Boba Fett will be included in The Mandalorian’s second season. And when I saw that I sighed with disappointment and said “really?”

Boba Fett, mere moments before his death in Return of the Jedi.

While it is unconfirmed at this stage and should be taken with a pinch of salt, this rumour has been picked up by a number of reputable news outlets and is at least credible. While I generally avoid rumours here, this is one that I wanted to tackle. The Mandalorian was disappointing to me personally, for the reasons I’ve already laid out. I also found Pedro Pascal’s protagonist impossible to get behind, as he was a blank slate – a helmet-wearing, seldom-speaking, monotone bag of nothing. With no personality came no motivation – why did he do any of the things he did, like turn on his client to save the child? The answer seemed to be “because a room full of TV show writers decided that’s what he was going to do.” There was also The Mandalorian’s runtime – for a flagship series, thirty-minute episodes is pretty pathetic. And when practically all of those episodes would have benefited greatly from a few extra scenes providing background, explanation, or even just to show the passage of time from one moment to the next, the show felt poorly-edited or that corners had been cut.

But the worst part was the introduction of the child – nicknamed “baby Yoda” by the internet. The revelation that the Mandalorian’s target was a child is not in itself an issue. In fact it’s a major driving force for the rest of the season’s plot. Nor is my issue with the idea that the child is a member of Yoda’s species. That’s a little unoriginal, but there were always going to be little callbacks to other aspects of the franchise present in The Mandalorian. What bugged me was that, inside of two episodes, the Force comes back into play. The Force. In a show that promised to take a look at the Star Wars galaxy away from the Jedi and Sith. The Mandalorian told us it was a show about a lone gunslinger far beyond the reach of the Republic, and that premise sounded amazing. The Jedi and Sith are a tiny minority of the denizens of the Star Wars galaxy, and seeing how the 99% live, far away from the Force, is something that appealed to me. That concept still does – but it isn’t what The Mandalorian delivered.

Recent Star Wars projects – practically all of them, in fact – have overplayed the nostalgia card. The Force Awakens and of course The Rise of Skywalker may seem the most egregious, but there’s also Solo: A Star Wars Story and the Darth Vader sequences in Rogue One. I named the latter my favourite film of the last decade, but those sequences detracted from it, at least for me.

I would have preferred to see Rogue One stand on its own without Darth Vader – the story was good enough.

The Mandalorian has the same issue. At a number of points in its short runtime it strayed across that invisible line which divides a nod and a wink to returning fans from boring unoriginality. The overuse of nostalgia, such as in the sequences with the Jawas and their sandcrawler and epitomised by the child being a Force-user, went a long way to spoiling the series for me. The return of Boba Fett would just be another example of how the show’s producers don’t trust any Star Wars story to succeed without the crutch of nostalgia.

I really do find that to be disappointing – and it’s apparent, too, that Disney has learnt nothing from the overwhelmingly negative response fans had to the overuse of nostalgia in The Rise of Skywalker if it really is their intention to bring Boba Fett into this series. The only reason why The Mandalorian Season 2 was something I was even considering watching was because I hoped that we might finally get to see some character development and to see Pedro Pascal shine, finally bringing the nameless, bland protagonist to life and giving him some colour. But the Mandalorian is, at best, a pale clone of Boba Fett – even down to the identical armour design – and standing him up alongside the original would not make for a good comparison.

The Mandalorian’s unnamed and boring protagonist.

Boba Fett was himself an uninteresting character in Star Wars – his expanded role, such as his cameo in the prequels, was due simply to the popularity of action figures and merchandise. But despite that, he’s an established character now, someone we’ve seen as a child and as an adult, and while fortunately his role in the franchise’s awful Expanded Universe has been erased, he will still stand up next to the nameless protagonist of The Mandalorian and draw positive comparisons.

The Star Wars franchise has never been able to successfully move on from its first three films. The prequels told the backstory of some of the characters in the originals. The sequels (two of them, anyway) just remade those same films. And of the two spin-offs, one was a prequel focusing solely on one of the main characters, and the other was also a prequel which led directly to the plot of the first film. There is scope within Star Wars to move away from A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. But so far, no one has tried. Every major Star Wars project has relied excessively on its first three films. The characters, themes, and storylines have been rehashed so many times that at this point they really are flogging a dead horse. I long for some genuine originality in the Star Wars universe, and to see a project which finally steps out of the shadow of those three films. As wonderful as the original trilogy is, Star Wars should be able to be more than that.

The Knights of the Old Republic video games told a story that didn’t rely on the original Star Was films.

Knights of the Old Republic was a duology of Star Wars video games from 2003-04. These games are among my favourites, and are also among my favourite stories told in the Star Wars galaxy. Why? Because they’re original. They take an original premise and an original setting, ignoring the first three films entirely, and tell an exciting and engaging pair of related stories. Knights of the Old Republic is basically the only property from the old Expanded Universe worth reviving, largely because of its uniqueness and originality.

Why can’t The Mandalorian be as bold as that? Why do they feel the need to rely so heavily on what we’ve already seen, bringing the Force and Boba Fett into the show? The premise sounded so interesting and genuinely different, yet what we got was bland and dripping in cheap nostalgia. The return of Boba Fett – setting aside the dumb story point of reviving yet another dead character, which is a whole issue in itself – just stinks. It’s yet another example of the higher-ups at Disney not understanding Star Wars. There’s a whole galaxy to explore with trillions of inhabitants and perhaps thousands of years of history to dig into. Yet time and again, they drag the franchise back to the same handful of characters and the same overtrodden ground. I really hope this Boba Fett rumour turns out to be untrue.

The Star Wars franchise – including The Mandalorian – is the copyright of Disney and Lucasfilm. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.