End-of-Year Awards 2020

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

Welcome to my first annual End-of-Year 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.

Ten great Star Trek episodes – Part 3: Deep Space Nine

Spoiler Warning: In addition to spoilers for the Deep Space Nine episodes on this list, minor spoilers may be present for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise, including Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard.

In the previous two entries in this series of articles, I picked out ten great episodes from both The Next Generation and The Original Series. This time, it’s the turn of Deep Space Nine to get a closer look. Thus far on the blog I haven’t spent much time with Deep Space Nine, which is mostly due to Star Trek: Picard taking up a lot of time, and because practically nothing from Deep Space Nine crossed over to that show. So this is a first!

The Next Generation had successfully proven that the Star Trek brand was bigger than Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in the late 1980s. With Gene Roddenberry terminally ill, Rick Berman took over the running of the Star Trek franchise, and by 1990, when the fourth season of The Next Generation debuted, was in full control. It was around this time that the concept of a spin-off from The Next Generation began to be taken seriously. It was decided that the show should be set on a space station so as to differentiate it from The Next Generation, which was still on the air at the time it premiered. Returning to the franchise’s western inspirations from way back in the mid-1960s, Deep Space Nine was based on the idea of a frontier town from those kind of stories – complete with a town sheriff, bartender, “mayor”, and “natives”.

Deep Space Nine represented the biggest change in the Star Trek franchise so far, and even in 2020 remains unique as a series not set on a moving starship. The fixed setting meant that the producers could bring in a number of secondary recurring characters in addition to the main cast, several of whom would go on to have increasingly large roles as the seven seasons of the show rolled out. Two major characters from The Next Generation crossed over to Deep Space Nine – Chief O’Brien was present from the beginning and Worf joined in the fourth season. This continuity of characters, combined with crossover episodes, firmly tied the two series together as separate parts of a larger ongoing fictional universe in a way that was unprecedented at the time. The Next Generation had gone out of its way to stand apart from The Original Series at least in terms of its characters and setting, but Deep Space Nine leaned into its sister-show.

The opening titles for Deep Space Nine.

Thematically, however, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine were worlds apart. From the very beginning there were tensions and conflicts among the crew, which was now made up of Federation and non-Federation personnel. The show would diverge even more from previous iterations of the franchise as time went on, becoming much darker in tone and eventually portraying a long, bitter war between the Federation and the Dominion – a new faction created for Deep Space Nine. The Dominion War storyline, which built up slowly between Seasons 2 and 5 and would explode into all-out war for the entirety of Seasons 6 and 7, marked Star Trek’s first foray into serialised storytelling. This more modern style of television storytelling would be employed in Enterprise, Discovery, and Star Trek: Picard as well.

For all of these reasons, Deep Space Nine was controversial in some Trekkie circles, and some fans of the two earlier shows weren’t keen on its static setting, darker tone, and serialised stories. Conversely, though, some Trekkies cite Deep Space Nine as their favourite entry in the franchise by far, precisely for those same reasons. I place myself somewhere in the middle; while it is different to what came before, that doesn’t make it worse and it is still greatly enjoyable Star Trek fare.

One final point worth making note of is that, as of 2020, Deep Space Nine has not been remastered and remains in its original broadcast format from the 1990s. I consider this to be a major mistake and oversight on ViacomCBS’ part, especially as they’ve been so keen to use the Star Trek franchise to drum up support for their streaming platform, CBS All Access. As a result, Deep Space Nine doesn’t look as good as most of the other shows (along with Voyager, which has the same limitation). I did write a piece about this, calling on ViacomCBS to remedy this situation. You can read it by clicking or tapping here.

If you missed the other posts in this series, here’s a recap of how the format works: this isn’t a “Top Ten” list of my all-time favourites. Instead, it’s a list of ten episodes (or rather, ten stories, some of which are multi-episode arcs) which I think are great and well worth watching – especially if you’re finding yourself with lots of time for entertainment at the moment. I’ve picked at least one episode from each of the show’s seven seasons, and the episodes are not ranked, they’re simply listed in order of release.

Let’s jump in and look at the episodes, and please be aware of spoilers.

Number 1: Emissary (Season 1, premiere)

Commander Sisko and Chief O’Brien in Emissary.

It’s rare for a series to kick off with one of its best episodes. What often happens in television is that it takes time for a show to find its feet as the actors and crew get used to working together and as characters and story elements develop. In the Star Trek franchise this is true too, but Emissary bucks the trend. Until very recently I’d have said it was easily the best opening episode of any Star Trek show, but it must now share that crown with Remembrance, the premiere of Star Trek: Picard – a review of which you can find by clicking or tapping here.

The episode begins with a flashback to the events of The Next Generation episode The Best of Both Worlds, around three years previously. Sisko, it turns out, had been aboard the USS Saratoga, one of the ships destroyed by the Borg. His wife had been killed but he escaped the exploding ship with his son Jake. Cut to the present day, and the Cardassians had finally withdrawn from Bajor after decades of occupation. Both factions had been introduced in The Next Generation too, so the audience would have been familiar with them. Both of these elements tied Deep Space Nine to its sister-show in a way that hadn’t really been seen before. Star Trek was expanding, but it was expanding in such a way that the shows being produced together would share a setting – we’d also see this in Voyager, and I’ve written previously about why it worked and why doing something similar would be good for Star Trek going forward. But we’re off-topic again.

Sisko and Jake travel to the Bajoran system and arrive aboard the newly-christened Deep Space Nine, a former Cardassian station. The episode introduces us to the crew – O’Brien, who’s obviously crossed over from The Next Generation, as well as Dax, Quark, Kira, Odo, and Dr Bashir. Interestingly, the role of Kira Nerys was intended to be filled by Ro Laren, another recurring character from The Next Generation, but actress Michelle Forbes declined the offer.

The episode sets up tension between Sisko and Picard; the former blaming the latter for what happened at Wolf 359. Sisko seems on the verge of resigning from Starfleet, but after discovering the Bajoran wormhole and encountering the noncorporeal Prophets, Sisko realises why he’d been unable to move on from those events, and approaches his new role with renewed vigour.

The only criticism I’d have of Emissary might be this: the story almost immediately took DS9 from being a minor frontier outpost to being a vitally important location. There was scope, I feel, for the show to have spent a little more time looking at DS9 as an unpopular posting, and at Bajor as a slowly-recovering backwater before introducing the Gamma Quadrant. I mentioned that Emissary stands up as being a pilot that’s one of the series’ best episodes and that’s true – in part because the discovery of the wormhole storyline could have been moved to later in the show!

Number 2: The Homecoming, The Circle, and The Siege (Season 2)

The Siege sees Bajoran rebels capture DS9.

I believe this trio of episodes form Star Trek’s first “three-parter”, and kicked off the second season of Deep Space Nine with an explosive story. It would’ve felt wrong to pick just one of the three episodes considering they form a single story, and I wanted to talk about it in its entirety.

One aspect of the story in Season 1 designed to cause tension was the idea that some Bajorans resented the arrival of the Federation so soon after the Cardassians had left. While Major Kira expressed this view in Emissary, she had largely stepped back from overt criticism of the Federation’s presence, yet it was something the show wanted to address. In this story, an aggressive group of Bajorans want the Federation gone. They don’t realise it, but they’re being manipulated by the Cardassians, and the whole scheme is a Cardassian plot to retake the station and the Bajoran system – which is now strategically valuable because of the wormhole.

DS9 would come under attack a number of times across the series’ run, but this is the first time we really see the station and its crew forced into such a difficult combat situation. Despite Starfleet’s order to withdraw – they were only there, after all, at the request of the Bajoran government – Sisko and the crew stay behind to fight off the Bajoran soldiers involved in the coup.

The character of Li Nalas, played by Richard Beymer, is one of the best one-time characters that appeared in the show, especially in the early seasons. A resistance hero who Kira rescues, Li is assigned to the station and ultimately loses his life to save Sisko from the rebels.

Vedek Winn – who would later be elected Kai, the Bajorans’ spiritual leader – returns in this story from her sole appearance in Season 1. While she had been presented as a thoroughly dislikable character in the episode In the Hands of the Prophets, it was here, at the beginning of Season 2, that her role as a villain begins to be fleshed out, as she is shown to be collaborating with the Cardassians and is clearly someone for whom power is the ultimate goal.

Number 3: The Wire (Season 2)

Dr Bashir tends to Garak in The Wire.

Elim Garak, the sole Cardassian aboard DS9, was an enigmatic and interesting character in his early appearances. Later episodes would flesh him out much more, especially during the Dominion War which of course affected Cardassia greatly. But The Wire was one of the first Garak-centric episodes, and it looked in detail at his past as a spy.

In fact, The Wire is the first episode to introduce the Obsidian Order – the Cardassian Empire’s secret police/intelligence agency. This faction would go on to be further developed as later seasons of the show rolled out, but here is where it was first introduced. We also meet its former head, Enabran Tain, for the first time. Tain would reappear several more times in Deep Space Nine.

Garak had been an enigmatic character, but prior to The Wire his status and his past were unclear, and his conversations, particularly with Dr Bashir but also with others, could be taken in different ways. It wasn’t until this episode that we get outright confirmation that not only was he once a spy, but that he’s in exile. His lies cloud the story somewhat, and even by the end of the episode the reason for his exile is not clear, but what is clear is that Dr Bashir had been right about him in a roundabout way – Garak had once been a spy.

Over the course of more than thirty appearances in Deep Space Nine, Andrew Robinson would make Garak just as much a part of the show as its main cast – especially in later seasons. It’s hard to imagine the series without him, as he would become such an important character, and from that point of view the story of The Wire is important. But as a work of mystery, and as an episode focusing on Dr Bashir as he tries to save a patient who, at times, treats him awfully, it’s a great work of drama too.

Number 4: The Search, Parts 1 & 2 (Season 3)

The Search introduced the USS Defiant.

The finale of Season 2 introduced the Dominion, the aggressive Gamma Quadrant faction that would become Deep Space Nine’s major antagonists. The Season 3 premiere picks up the story in the aftermath, and the crew set out to search for the Dominion – in the brand-new USS Defiant.

The Dominion were intended to be an anti-Federation factioin. Where the Klingon and Cardassian Empires were monoethnic, the Dominion would incorporate several races under its banner, just like the Federation. But instead of being a democratic society with a focus on peaceful exploration, the Dominion would be a dictatorship, and its races would be split into castes – with the Founders being treated with god-like reverence, akin to something we might see in Imperial Japan before 1945 or North Korea. The Dominion also answered a burning question for Deep Space Nine, namely what to do with the Gamma Quadrant. The show was supposed to be set on a static station with less focus on exploration, but with the Gamma Quadrant beckoning just beyond the wormhole, a number of episodes had basically been about going there and exploring. The Dominion, and their iron grip on the territory beyond the wormhole, gave Deep Space Nine an excuse to cut back on exploration, and by extension, avoid becoming The Next Generation or Voyager, which was about to premiere. Voyager’s upcoming launch also changed the name of the USS Defiant – it was originally to be named the USS Valiant, but Rick Berman and other Star Trek producers didn’t want two ships whose names began with the letter V!

The introduction of the Defiant allowed for more stories away from the station featuring the full crew, not all of whom could seemingly fit on one Runabout. It shook up the show, and would set the stage for the more military direction that the showrunners intended to take.

The Search also introduces two key recurring characters – Michael Eddington, the Starfleet officer who would go on to become a leader in the Maquis, and the unnamed female changeling, who would be the Founders’ representative throughout the Dominion War. Odo discovering his people and realising for the first time that he isn’t alone was a major turn for his character too, one which worked brilliantly, especially in later stories. Indeed, much of what would come later in Deep Space Nine in terms of successful storylines premiered or was at least hinted at in this two-parter.

The Dominion here are shown to be very powerful, but their intentions are not yet clear. The Founders clearly have a major problem with any non-changelings, but they do concede to Odo at the end and allow everyone to return home. Obviously, however, this wouldn’t be the last we’d see of the Dominion or Odo’s people.

Number 5: Homefront and Paradise Lost (Season 4)

Admiral Leyton was the antagonist in Homefront and Paradise Lost.

Since discovering the Dominion and their shape-shifting Founders, the Federation had become increasingly worried – to the point of paranoia, in some cases – about being attacked or infiltrated by changelings. The basic story of Homefront and Paradise Lost sees a former commander of Sisko’s recall him to Earth to work on strategies to protect the Federation – but this officer, Admiral Leyton, played by Robert Foxworth, has another scheme in mind.

Believing the democratic government to be impotent and paralysed in the face of the Dominion threat, Leyton plans a coup to seize power for himself on behalf of a cadre of Starfleet officers, in a story with a genuinely sympathetic antagonist. What’s so engrossing about Leyton is that he’s not a typical villain. He and Sisko actually have the same morals and the same motivation – they just have very different ways of going about engaging the Dominion. Leyton genuinely believes he’s doing the right thing – and while in the episode itself he’s presented as being in the wrong, we can at least entertain the argument that the later Dominion War would prove that he was right to take the threat seriously.

We’ve visited Earth in Star Trek on a number of occasions, but this was our first significant look at 24th Century Earth outside of Starfleet Academy. The action takes place in several locations on the planet, including Sisko’s hometown of New Orleans. It also gives Nog, now a Starfleet cadet, something significant to do for the first time in a number of episodes, and sets the stage for his future development as a Starfleet officer.

I’ve always liked the character of Joseph Sisko, played by veteran actor Brock Peters. In this story, he’s presented as a voice of reason, standing up to Sisko’s increasingly paranoid behaviour as he searches for changeling infiltrators. Giving that role to Joseph Sisko worked so well in the story, and it’s one of my favourite storylines from this duology.

Number 6: Nor Battle to the Strong (Season 5)

Nor Battle to the Strong was a rare Jake-centric episode.

Despite being credited as a main cast member for all of Deep Space Nine’s seven seasons, Cirroc Lofton’s character of Jake Sisko made only 71 appearances out of the show’s 176 total episodes. For a long time, the show’s creators didn’t really know what to do with the character. Having him try to become a Starfleet officer would have been too similar to Wesley Crusher’s storyline in The Next Generation, and I have no doubt that there was an awareness on the part of the producers that Wesley had been, shall we say, not well-received by every fan. So there was a need to do things differently, but without any real sense of direction as to what that might be. Jake Sisko was created to be less a character in his own right than to give Benjamin Sisko a dependent, and it shows.

However, by the fifth season, the idea had been conceived to make Jake into a writer. Initially he wrote poetry and planned to write a novel, but in the episode Nor Battle to the Strong he branches out and begins writing articles and profiles about current events – in this case he uses the opportunity of writing about Dr Bashir as an excuse to get off the station, but ends up in a warzone when their ship is diverted. At this point in Deep Space Nine’s story, the Federation and Klingons are engaged in a brief war which had been set in motion by a Dominion infiltrator, but that really is’t the focus of the episode.

Jake is thrown into a warzone completely unprepared for what he’d find. He goes from enthusiastic to terrified in a matter of hours, and in a very powerful sequence finds himself alone with a badly-wounded Federation soldier, who dies in front of him.

Toward the end of the episode the Klingons attack, and Jake finds himself trapped and terrified in the Starfleet base. Firing his phaser randomly he inadvertently causes a cave-in, which stops the Klingons in their tracks. Hailed as a hero, Jake feels dejected and depressed, feeling that after abandoning Bashir and the dying soldier, he doesn’t deserve the label. He writes up his experiences in a powerfully honest piece which we see both Sisko and Bashir read.

Nor Battle to the Strong is an incredibly powerful story about the reality of war, told through the eyes of the kind of enthusiastic young man that our armies arguably consist of. At the beginning of the episode Jake is longing for action, to get away from the boredom of the station and a medical conference. He’d love to thought of as a hero, too. Yet by the end, after the horrors he saw and the trauma he went through, not only does he reject the label of “hero”, but he’s more than happy to be back aboard the station.

While he labels himself a coward, and perhaps not unfairly so, we sympathise with Jake. He wasn’t ready for what he saw, as indeed nobody can be until they see if for themselves, and he acted on instinct and out of fear. Jake could be any of us, and the episode challenges us as the audience as if to say: “you think you’d act any differently?” Nor Battle to the Stong also sets up Jake for his decision to remain aboard DS9 when it’s occupied by the Dominion at the end of the season. Having seen warfare first-hand, he’s more experienced and perhaps feels a little more ready for taking a big decision like that.

Number 7: Call to Arms (Season 5), Favor the Bold, & Sacrifice of Angels (Season 6)

The Federation fleet in Favor the Bold, en route to DS9.

This trio of episodes forms a single story, with several other episodes in between at the beginning of the sixth season. In Call to Arms, the cold war between the Federation and the Dominion finally boils over into all-out conflict, and as the gateway to the Gamma Quadrant DS9 is in the firing line. In an attempt to stop the Dominion’s military build-up in Cardassian space, Sisko and the crew plant a minefield at the mouth of the wormhole – self-replicating mines, designed by Rom, Dax, and O’Brien, which would also be cloaked for maximum effectiveness. While it had been clear for some time that the Dominion War would happen one way or another, in the end it would be Starfleet and the Federation who would trigger it.

We’ve touched on Deep Space Nine being darker before, and this decision is another example of that. Starfleet had evidently given up on the idea of a negotiated settlement, and as they could no longer stand a military buildup on their frontier, they took the first step – aggressive action which had no other possible outcome. In this sense, Starfleet is presented in a much more military light than usual, akin to some of the conspirators in The Undiscovered Country, which is perhaps the closest we can get within the franchise.

The minefield ultimately leads to the anticipated Dominion-Cardassian attack, and with the Federation’s resources focused elsewhere, DS9 is surrendered to their forces at the end of Season 5, and remains under their control for the first third of Season 6. I’d argue, by the way, that DS9 was so vitally important to the war effort, as it controlled the only travel route between Dominion space and the Alpha Quadrant, that all steps should have been taken to keep it safe. But a) there’s no denying it was a dramatic turn as a story beat, and b) we don’t know the state of Federation-Klingon forces at the time, and they may well have decided that trying to hold the station and the Bajoran system would be massively costly and ultimately futile. But we’ve gone way off-topic!

Favor the Bold sees Sisko come up with a plan to recapture the station, but with the Dominion close to destroying the minefield and unleashing a vast wave of reinforcements, they have to launch the plan ahead of schedule. I loved the way that they were able to communicate the information from DS9 to Sisko – Morn would become a courier, and I loved this way of using his character.

The story arc is finally concluded in Sacrifice of Angels in dramatic fashion, and features what is still one of Star Trek’s biggest space battles to date, possibly only behind a couple of later battles in Deep Space Nine and the one seen in Discovery’s Battle at the Binary Stars. The battle is also one of Star Trek’s finest, with the last-minute arrival of the Klingon fleet clearing a path for Sisko to make it back to the station. The next twist involves the Prophets, who finally involve themselves in the war on the side of the Federation – at least for a moment.

Practically every character gets a turn across this story arc, from Jake Sisko, who opts to stay behind aboard the occupied station, to Kira, who sees herself as a collaborator with the Cardassians, to side-characters like Rom, Nog, and Garak, who all have roles to play. Gul Dukat sees a massive turnaround in his character, going from achieving his wildest ambitions to tasting bitter defeat and painful loss, setting the stage for what would come next for him. Overall, a stunning story to kick off the Dominion War arc.

Number 8: Who Mourns for Morn? (Season 6)

Morn and Odo in Who Mourns for Morn?

In the midst of a what was a very dark season overall, Who Mourns for Morn? stands out as being a much more light-hearted episode. Focusing on the character of Morn, who was less of a recurring character than a true background character, this episode sees him “killed”, and Quark scrambling to recover his fortune.

Taking a break from the war and returning to the Quark-versus-Odo dynamic that had worked so well in previous seasons, the episode also brings in a number of guest stars to play Morn’s criminal associates. Each of these characters was fairly one-dimensional and even a little over-the-top, but in the context of a fun heist/mystery story they worked wonderfully, and gave Deep Space Nine some much-needed time off from the war.

René Auberjonois and Armin Shimerman worked so well together, not just here but throughout their stories together in Deep Space Nine. The two actors built up a chemistry and, reportedly, a genuine friendship – helped, no doubt, by the long sessions spent together having makeup and prosthetics applied.

Morn had been a part of Deep Space Nine from the beginning, but in a non-speaking role. This episode took a more detailed look at him, particularly his past as a criminal. It was genuinely funny to see the characters talking about Morn as someone who would never shut up in light of the fact that we never heard him speak on-screen, though the episode wasn’t universally well-received, as some fans felt it was too un-serious in the middle of a war, and that Morn was somehow “unworthy” of an episode dedicated to him. Some people are real killjoys!

Number 9: In The Pale Moonlight (Season 6)

In The Pale Moonlight spawned an early internet meme!

Deep Space Nine was much darker than any Star Trek show had been before, as we’ve already mentioned. It looked at themes like warfare and morality from a wholly different place than Gene Roddenberry had done, and In The Pale Moonlight sees the show at one of its darkest moments. What results is an episode that is divisive, at least in some circles. Fans of the more optimistic tone of The Original Series and The Next Generation may dislike what it brings to to the table, particularly in the way it shows how 24th Century humanity is susceptible to the same flaws and problems that we are today – but I’d argue that simply makes it more relatable, or even realistic.

With the Dominion War raging and many Starfleet officers dying on a daily basis, Sisko hatches a plan to bring the Romulans into the fight on the side of the Federation-Klingon alliance. Other episodes of Deep Space Nine had looked at the gritty reality of war from different angles, but In The Pale Moonlight showed the crew looking through reams of names of the dead and missing in a powerful sequence that showed just how many casualties were being inflicted.

The Dominion had been created to be an equal for – and to outgun, at points – the Federation-Klingon alliance. We’d seen even going back to their pre-war appearances how powerful their ships and weapons could be, so by this point in the show the fact that the war would see the Federation somewhere between a WWI-esque stalemate and actually being on the back foot is not unrealistic. The storyline builds masterfully on what has come before, especially earlier in Season 6, to present Sisko’s decisions in a sympathetic light.

Sisko employs Garak to aid in his scheme to convince a Romulan senator that the Dominion plans to attack them. As with any big lie, Sisko finds himself falling deeper and deeper into the scheme, crossing more and more lines in his quest to do what he believes is right. The episode thus looks as the concept of moral relativism and the question of whether the ends can in fact justify the means under exceptional circumstances. Sisko was ultimately okay with lying, forging evidence, pitting two powerful factions against one another, and dragging a foreign power into a war that they didn’t need to participate in. He was even content to cover up murders, all in the name of victory for the Federation. As Section 31 would say, sometimes saving the Federation means doing very un-Federation things.

Number 10: The Siege of AR-558 (Season 7)

Nog receives a serious injury in The Siege of AR-558.

Deep Space Nine’s seventh and final season was a war story, and the latter part in particular was one long serialised arc. It can be difficult to pull out single episodes from such a story, but for me, The Siege of AR-558 encapsulates perfectly what the show wanted to say about war.

Directed by Vietnam War veteran Winrich Kolbe, who directed a number of other Star Trek episodes too, The Siege of AR-558 has a claustrophobic feel, no doubt informed by its director’s own experiences. The fact that the planetoid is not even given a proper name adds to the sense of futility, and while there is a good reason to defend the captured position – it hosts an important Dominion communications relay – that hardly matters to the soldiers stationed there.

Nog’s character arc in Deep Space Nine, from petty thief to outstanding officer and war hero, sees major development as he suffers a serious injury. The way Aron Eisenberg approached the role of Nog is commendable, because he took what could have been a one-dimensional minor character, and foil for Jake Sisko, and turned him around into someone we could root for and feel for. Sadly, Eisenberg passed away last year.

The Siege of AR-558 is also a reminder that all wars see small acts of heroism on a regular basis, many of which go unnoticed and unreported. Sisko’s decision to stay and fight is one, Nog’s injury is another, but also we have the soldiers already present on the planetoid – not all of whom survive the episode. These characters show different reactions to life on the front lines, and the episode is much better for their inclusion.

The Siege of AR-558 also gives Ezri Dax something to do away from the station. Ezri was brought in at the beginning of Season 7 to replace Jadzia Dax – who had been killed at the end of the sixth season. Nicole deBoer played her very well in all of her appearances, but with only one season left before the show would end, Ezri didn’t have a lot of time for us to get to know her. Thus her role in an episode like this one, while not the main focus, is important for her character as the season unfolds.

So that’s it. Ten great episodes from Deep Space Nine. I tried to pick a couple of non-war stories to go along with all of the war-themed episodes. There’s more to the show than the war, but war and its associated themes are prevalent throughout the series, even from its opening scene which was set midway through a battle.

There are many other episodes which almost made this list, and Deep Space Nine has some great options to revisit time and again. I’ve seen the Dominion War arc more times than I can count, and even on a repeat viewing the war is still incredibly dramatic, tense, and exciting. For me, “modern” Star Trek began partway through The Next Generation’s run, perhaps around the third season, and Deep Space Nine carried on the trend of modernising the storytelling, taking Star Trek away from its 1960s roots. While some fans of The Original Series may not appreciate that, for me personally it works. I have friends on both sides of the argument of whether the Dominion War arc was a great idea or a terrible one, but again it’s a storyline that worked for me.

As I said last time when looking at The Next Generation, there were many other episodes that I could have chosen for this list. Deep Space Nine can be divided into at least three distinct parts – Seasons 1 and 2, prior to the introduction of the Dominion, Seasons 3-5 before the outbreak of the war, and Seasons 6 and 7 while the war raged. Within that framework there were changes, the two biggest ones being the introduction of Worf in Season 4 and Jadzia Dax being replaced by Ezri at the beginning of Season 7.

While I wouldn’t pick Deep Space Nine to be someone’s first introduction to Star Trek – especially as it hasn’t been remastered – it is nevertheless a great show, and one that takes the franchise to different places both in terms of its static location and thematically. It’s a very interesting part of Star Trek’s history, and one that I hope will be the inspiration for a new series in the future.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is available to watch now on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and other countries and territories. The series is also available on DVD. The Star Trek franchise – including Deep Space Nine and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Ranking the Star Trek films

One of the things people will ask about any franchise, really, is “what’s your favourite film in the series?” And it can be a difficult question to answer, especially in a franchise like Star Trek where the films tell different kinds of stories. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a very different entity from its sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – and those are just the first two titles! The former is a more ethereal, slow-paced affair, whereas the latter is very much an action-sci fi film. People have preferences over which style they prefer, of course, and that’s to be expected, but comparing different styles of film and different kinds of stories is difficult. It’s like asking “do you like comedy or horror?” The answer can be “I like both”, or “it depends what I’m in the mood for in a given moment” – but neither of those answers makes for a satisfactory ranked list!

There have been, as of 2020, thirteen Star Trek films – with a fourteenth rumoured to be in the early stages of production. The films were released between 1979 and 2016, making Star Trek one of the longest-running film franchises, alongside such series as James Bond and Star Wars. The films have featured three different casts: the cast of The Original Series, led by William Shatner; the cast of The Next Generation, led by Sir Patrick Stewart; and most recently the reboot cast, led by Chris Pine. I have long felt that there is scope within the franchise for other crews to get a look-in; don’t get me started on the idea of a Deep Space Nine film or we’ll be here all day!

Initially I planned to do a proper ranked list, with each film in order from 1-13, but that was just too difficult. Instead I settled on this approach: the films will be split into four groups, which reflect their rough positions in my ranked list. There will be a bottom three, a lower- and an upper-middle, and a top three. Within the sections, films are listed in chronological order by year of release. It’ll make sense when you read it, don’t worry!

So without further ado, let’s rank the films!

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

The bottom three:

This wasn’t a particularly easy task, because generally speaking, I have enjoyed at least parts of all of the Star Trek films. While some of them do have issues in terms of things like plot, special effects, and dialogue, every single one has redeeming qualities that make for worthwhile and entertaining viewing. However, when considered alongside other offerings in the franchise, these are the films I feel are the weakest. Remember that these sections are in chronological order of release, not ranked in order of preference.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

Sybok, Spock’s half-brother, was introduced in The Final Frontier.

Where The Final Frontier arguably came undone was William Shatner’s involvement as writer and director. Due to contractual obligations with Paramount, after Leonard Nimoy had his turn in the director’s chair with The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home, William Shatner was able to exercise his right to write and direct his own Star Trek film. And he seized the opportunity to put Kirk at the centre of the story, as Sybok (Spock’s long-lost half-brother) used his power of pain removal to corrupt members of the Enterprise-A’s crew.

There were specific issues with some of the film’s visual effects, too, notably in its climactic final act. The “god entity” which Kirk and the crew encounter was widely criticised, even at the time, for being sub-par, and a now-infamous sequence with rock-aliens ended up being cut entirely from the film due to the visual effects being so poor. Shatner would blame this on using a new special effects company, as his first choice was busy on another project.

There are some great moments in The Final Frontier, though. The camping scene with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy was touching at points, and ended up being one of the last times we got to see the trio alone together before The Original Series era was over. The shuttle crash was also a high point for me, being sufficiently tense and dramatic. Scotty saying he knows the Enterprise “like the back of his hand” and then immediately walking into a bulkhead was genuinely funny – if slapstick. And finally, the setting of Paradise City on Nimbus III managed to perfectly convey that it was a run-down failure of a settlement – a metaphor for the peace initiative that it was founded for.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

Nemesis would be the final outing for the crew of The Next Generation… until Star Trek: Picard brought some of them back!

Nemesis was, until January 2020, the furthest point in the main Star Trek timeline (except for some sequences set in the far future), and because of that I think its status may have been over-inflated. It isn’t a bad film per se, and it does try to tackle a number of different issues. Firstly, the premise of Picard vs Picard is interesting in theory, as is the film’s exploration of Romulan society and the introduction of the Remans. The Romulans had had a long presence in Star Trek, but Nemesis was the first time we’d seen them in such detail.

It’s often criticised for being “not very Star Trek-y”, with much of that criticism being aimed at its director, Stuart Baird, who admitted up front that he wasn’t familiar with the franchise when making the film. However, the main points about Picard being cloned, the Remans being telepathic, and the references to Deep Space Nine’s Dominion War story arc did, at least in my opinion, tie it to the rest of the franchise in an adequate way.

Data being killed off was also a point of significant criticism at the time, not just for the death itself but for how Data was handled in the story. Star Trek: Picard has recently rectified that – Data was able to have a proper goodbye, and it was shown how his legacy remains in the way his friends think of him. But for eighteen years the way Data’s death was handled was, for some fans at least, a bone of contention.

The buggy sequence at the beginning of the film – complete with a car-chase – was also something that many fans felt did not work. And it does, at the very least, feel like something that was shoehorned in rather than an organic element of the story.

Star Trek (2009)

Putting Spock and Kirk at odds with each other for much of Star Trek was seen as jarring by many fans.

Star Trek had been in continuous production for 19 years (or longer, depending on how we count things) when Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled in 2005. For many, it felt like the end of an era and it seemed for a time that Star Trek was dead and not coming back. However, in 2006 rumours began circulating of a new film being in production, and this project – helmed by JJ Abrams – would eventually become Star Trek.

This film was a significant change from anything that had come before in that it was a stylised, action-heavy film – with some sci-fi trappings. The franchise had dipped its toes in the action-sci-fi world before (more on that in a moment) but for many fans, Star Trek took too much of an action-oriented approach to its story. While there were familiar elements – most notably the appearance of Leonard Nimoy as Spock – the time-travel and alternate universe elements of the story took a back seat to fighting and drama.

The decision to recast The Original Series characters, instead of using a new crew, was also a problem for some fans – I know several people who still, more than a decade on, have refused to see Star Trek simply for that reason. There were major aesthetic changes that went along with the recasting – notably the USS Enterprise itself, both inside and out. Many of the sets – which included a Budweiser brewery as the Enterprise’s engine room – simply felt very far removed from what had come before.

The recast crew behaved very differently to their Prime Timeline counterparts, which only added to the feeling that Star Trek was something radically different. The decision to have Kirk and Spock be at odds for large parts of the film may have given both characters a chance for development over the course of their arcs within the film, but was incredibly jarring to longstanding fans of The Original Series.

All in all, a combination of the various factors listed above came together to make 2009’s Star Trek a major change for the franchise. There are great moments in the film, but they’re interspersed with action sequences that would be more at home in another franchise.

The lower middle:

Leaving the weakest films behind we’re now approaching the middle of the road. All of the next four films have great moments – and a smattering of issues. They are, however, better than the ones we just looked at.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

The original USS Enterprise was destroyed in The Search for Spock.

For some reason, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is the first film with The Original Series’ cast that I can remember watching. It’s possible I’d seen others while very young, but if so I can’t remember them. Because The Search for Spock is the middle part of a trilogy, I think some aspects of it were confusing in that first viewing!

I’ve mentioned a number of times on the blog, but my introduction to the Star Trek franchise, in the early 1990s, was The Next Generation. It wasn’t until later that I was introduced to The Original Series, and this film may well have been my first point of contact with its crew. So on a personal level, I think I have more of a connection to The Search for Spock than I otherwise might!

There’s a great villain here – Kruge, played by Christopher Lloyd of Back to the Future fame – and his relationship with Kirk, particularly in the latter stages of the film, is genuinely interesting. The death of David Marcus was also something shocking an unexpected for a Star Trek film of this era – particularly as he was a returning character from The Wrath of Khan.

The main thrust of the plot is somewhat convoluted, however. The idea of a death-and-rebirth narrative is interesting, but it’s also one which can be complicated and difficult to get right – as The Search for Spock shows in places. It also works to undermine Spock’s sacrifice in The Wrath of Khan, which was the emotional crux of that film. That’s not to say I want Spock to stay dead considering some of his subsequent appearances, but an immediate (or almost-immediate) resurrection can make a character’s death or sacrifice lose some of its impact, and I’m afraid that definitely happened here.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Scotty interacts with a 1980s computer while Dr McCoy looks on in The Voyage Home.

Time-travel stories are among my least-favourite in Star Trek. The mechanics of time travel are inconsistent across the franchise, with it being shown to be both something routine that starships are capable of as well as something technologically difficult or impossible to achieve. I also dislike stories where the crew travel to the present day, as I feel in every single case where it’s happened the stories have become dated.

The basic premise here is interesting, though, and it’s a great example of how Star Trek can use its science fiction setting to highlight real-world issues – in this case, the issues of pollution and a loss of biodiversity in the oceans. While the whale-probe was, I felt, visually uninspired and seeing the crew in the mid-1980s after travelling back in time dates the film considerably, there were some fun moments.

Scotty interacting with a 1980s computer was funny, as was the line about changing the timeline by giving someone the formula to make “transparent aluminum”. The franchise has always had a sense of humour, and after the very serious tone in both The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock, it was a welcome change to see a film which brought back these lighter moments.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Sulu, Kirk, and other bridge crewmen in Into Darkness.

In the months before Star Trek Into Darkness released, there was rampant online speculation about Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. Many fans correctly guessed that “John Harrison” was actually legendary Star Trek villain Khan, so going into the film having read all that the revelation didn’t surprise me as much as it should have.

However, Star Trek Into Darkness is, in my opinion, a decent homage to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that manages to celebrate elements from that film without going too far and crossing the line into copying and ripping it off. Considering JJ Abrams would later cross that line – twice – in the Star Wars franchise, I’m thankful that he didn’t do so here.

Many of the issues I mentioned with 2009’s Star Trek are still present, but the Khan story always worked well in an action setting so I think that aspect of it, at least, can be forgiven. And despite the fact that we haven’t known this version of Kirk and Spock for very long, Kirk’s “death” in the Enterprise’s engine room was still an emotional hit in the same way Spock’s had been in the original.

Star Trek Into Darkness aimed to be a spiritual successor to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and it did largely succeed. While it’s definitely the lesser of the two, it was a significant improvement over Star Trek, and remains for me the high-water mark of the JJverse trilogy.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Beyond’s release was overshadowed by the death of Anton Yelchin.

Star Trek Beyond is the most recent of all the Star Trek films (at time of writing). Director JJ Abrams left the franchise to focus on Star Wars, but his style was nevertheless present. Beyond attempted to move away from the high-octane action of Into Darkness and tell a story which focused on characters and the dangers of interstellar exploration.

There were some great visual moments – notably Starbase Yorktown, described as a “snow globe in space” – and the story did tie into some elements from Star Trek: Enterprise, which was a nice nod to fans. I also noted, in Chris Pine’s portrayal of Kirk, something that felt like a throwback to Jeffrey Hunter’s original Christopher Pike at the beginning of the film, as he deals with the heavy burden of command.

Penned by Simon Pegg, who also played Scotty, I appreciate what Beyond tried to do. It’s clear Pegg is a huge fan of the franchise, and that he wanted to tell a story that would have been at home in The Original Series. There were hits and misses in terms of the story, but he did an admirable job trying to nudge what was in danger of becoming an action franchise closer to past iterations of Star Trek.

One point I greatly disliked was Jaylah. Not the character herself, nor her portrayal, but the name. A homophone for “J Law”, aka actress Jennifer Lawrence, who at the time was famous for her role in The Hunger Games, I just felt that the reference was stupid and unnecessary.

Sadly, the film was overshadowed by the losses of both Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin – the latter having taken over the role of Chekov, and was killed in an accident at the age of 27. While Nimoy’s passing was acknowledged in the film, the filming and much of the post-production work had already been completed at the time of Yelchin’s death, and while a simple message at the beginning commemorated him, some argued at the time that the producers behind Beyond should’ve done something more.

The upper middle:

Now we’ve arrived in the top half – and we’re finally looking at films which are good all-rounders. Any one of these could have broken into the top three, and they’re all films which I’m happy to go back to time and again.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

The Undiscovered Country featured an assassination… and purple-blooded Klingons.

According to some rumours, The Undiscovered Country almost wasn’t made following the reaction to The Final Frontier two years earlier. However, the cast did reunite for a final outing – and this film finally saw them earn a decent pay packet for their roles. Gene Roddenberry saw The Undiscovered Country shortly before he passed away – and he hated it. It was a shift in tone from The Original Series, and he felt that presenting Starfleet as a military organisation, and in particular some of Kirk’s anti-Klingon racism had no place in his vision of the 23rd Century.

Regardless, his objections were overridden and what resulted was a much better film – in my opinion – than any other since The Wrath of Khan. Kirk’s portrayal was humanised by his flaws and failings, and the plot was dramatic and tense as a conspiracy within Starfleet – aided and abetted by the Romulans and some within the Klingon Empire – sought to disrupt a budding peace initiative.

The film’s special effects were great – and many even stand up today. The “Praxis Effect” is named for a location from The Undiscovered Country, and has been used many more times in subsequent pictures, which is certainly a testament to that particular visual effect!

The final scenes of the film are especially touching, as it was clear even at the time that this was to be the final outing for the cast. Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov would return in Star Trek: Generations and of course Spock was back in the JJverse, but this was the last time the full cast were together, and the ultimate finale of The Original Series in that respect.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

The events of First Contact had a huge impact on Picard.

A lot of people (of my generation, at least) would surely pick First Contact as their favourite Star Trek film. It’s often held up alongside The Wrath of Khan as one of the absolute best, and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.

Picard is forced to confront the worst moment in his past when the Borg return, hell-bent on assimilating Earth once again. Though defeated in the Battle of Sector 001, the Borg and the Enterprise-E travel into Earth’s past – specifically to the day where humans and Vulcans made first contact.

Sir Patrick Stewart gives what is one of his best performances both inside and outside of Star Trek here, as Picard is haunted and overwhelmed by his history with the Borg. And the Battle of Sector 001 was one of the franchise’s best space battles – the last-minute arrival of the Enterprise still gets me even though I’ve seen it countless times!

Worf, who was a regular on Deep Space Nine at this point, did feel like he’d been shoehorned in as temporary captain of the USS Defiant, but that didn’t really detract from things. While I freely admit time-travel is not my favourite premise, because the setting was still in the future – the year 2063 – it didn’t feel awkward in the way some episodes and films do. And seeing humanity’s first warp flight, as well as learning a little more about the events in Earth’s history prior to the founding of the Federation was interesting!

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

Insurrection showed us Riker and Geordi as we don’t usually see them!

I feel like Insurrection gets an unfairly bad rap. While it could be argued that there were sillier elements to the film’s “fountain-of-youth” story, I feel like the points people often criticise about some of the behaviour of the main characters are actually the things I enjoyed most.

Picard and his crew travel to the Briar Patch, where Data has malfunctioned and gone rogue, exposing a secret Federation mission to observe a humanoid race. It turns out that the observation mission was simply a cover to harvest the planet’s life-preserving natural wonders – a scheme dreamt up by a rogue Admiral and a race called the Son’a. In what could be considered a mutiny, the crew race to save the planet’s inhabitants.

This kind of story, where a small crew has to work outside of the law to do the right thing, is exactly my jam. I love these kinds of stories – both inside and outside of Star Trek – so Insurrection was great for me. It also marked a change from seeing Picard and his crew as totally straight-laced, giving them freedom to let their hair down a little. It’s primarily for that reason – the crew seemingly acting “out-of-character” – that some people don’t like it, and I do understand and respect that. Sometimes that can be jarring. But in the context of Insurrection’s story, I just feel that it worked. And as a film that wasn’t just an action-fest but that told a story with heart, I feel that it captured perfectly the spirit of what Star Trek has always tried to be. Insurrection is the kind of story that could have been an episode of The Next Generation – which is why I like it.

The top three:

This is it, then! Out of all of the Star Trek films, we’ve arrived at my personal favourites.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Seeing the Enterprise for the first time in The Motion Picture is one of my favourite sequences in all of Star Trek.

Last year marked The Motion Picture’s fortieth anniversary. I wrote an article to commemorate the occasion – you can find it by clicking or tapping here. In short, The Motion Picture succeeded for me for several reasons. Firstly, as a slower-paced, ethereal story with a message, I feel that it fits in perfectly with what Star Trek is and aspires to be. Secondly, it set the stage for Star Trek coming back into the popular consciousness in a big way, and launched the franchise into the 1980s – the decade which would see several good films and a return to television with The Next Generation. Thirdly, much of the aesthetic of Star Trek, things we consider inseparable from the franchise, had their roots here – not in 1966. The sets built for The Motion Picture would be in continuous use on other Star Trek projects for years afterwards, in some cases right up to the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005.

The Motion Picture succeeded in bringing Star Trek back. And while it may not be everyone’s favourite, if it weren’t for the modest success it enjoyed in 1979 and early 1980 there would have been no more films, and probably no additional series either. Star Trek would have fizzled out and would be remembered today as a cult 1960s show with one failed film. That isn’t the case – and everything that’s happened in the franchise since 1979 has happened on the back of what The Motion Picture did.

As a story, I like that it’s not about defeating or killing an enemy. Instead, the climax of the film is about understanding, merging, and the creation of new life. Star Trek set out to seek out new life – and The Motion Picture showed us that the new life we might discover out in the cosmos could be almost entirely beyond our understanding. But despite that, Kirk, Spock, and the crew managed to bridge the gulf, solve a mystery, and save the Earth in the process.

While The Motion Picture may be, in some respects, dated from an aesthetic point of view (some sets and costumes are very seventies!) I do like some of the visual sequences. When Kirk and Scotty travel by shuttlepod to the refit Enterprise, it’s a genuinely emotional moment to see the ship in all its glory. And the music adds to that. While we’ve come to know The Motion Picture’s theme better as the theme to The Next Generation, it debuted here, as did Star Trek’s “golden age”.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Kirk in the captain’s chair in The Wrath of Khan.

The Wrath of Khan needs no introduction. For many fans, this is the best film that the franchise has to offer – and arguably it’s the best story featuring the cast of The Original Series. Supervillain Khan returns, having been exiled by Kirk in Season 1 of The Original Series, and he’s determined to have his revenge.

The maroon uniforms that debuted here are among the franchise’s best, and aesthetically the film looks amazing. Some moments have been dated somewhat by the passage of time, but the recent 4K rerelease still held up on my television at least!

Featuring some amazing performances, including from Ricardo Montalbán, who reprised his role from The Original Series, The Wrath of Khan is a classic revenge tale in a 23rd Century setting. There are some amazing twists along the way as the Enterprise is catastrophically damaged, Kirk and his crew end up trapped inside a planetoid, and a project created by Starfleet scientists for the purpose of terraforming is co-opted and turned into a weapon of mass destruction.

The Battle in the Mutara Nebula was arguably Star Trek’s best ever space battle at the time – inspired by classic war films set on submarines, it was a claustrophobic, edge-of-your-seat ride as the damaged Enterprise tries to hide from and battle Khan’s USS Reliant. Both ship designs are now considered iconic in the franchise. The battle still holds up today, even compared to the franchise’s more recent offerings.

Spock’s sacrifice is hard to put into words. Though we now know he survived – after a fashion, anyway – the raw emotional moment of seeing him die in front of his friend, and then be launched into space, is incredible. Both Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner are outstanding here, and while Shatner in particular can be justly criticised for some of his performances in The Original Series, any critic should look at this film and the sequence with Spock in particular before writing him off.

Star Trek: Generations (1994)

Generations saw Kirk and Picard team up.

Dr McCoy made a cameo appearance in The Next Generation’s premiere, and both Spock and Scotty would also crop up in later seasons. However, for the most part, the show trod its own path and stayed clear of The Original Series. This was a good decision overall, as allowing the franchise the opportunity to flourish without its original crew arguably opened the door to its future success. But by 1994, The Next Generation was over as a series – Deep Space Nine and the soon-to-premiere Voyager were continuing in the 24th Century. It was also approaching Star Trek’s 30th anniversary, and so it was decided to bring together the two different eras and tell the ultimate crossover story.

Seeing Kirk and Picard together on screen, working in common cause, was amazing. It’s absolutely one of the high points of the franchise for me personally, as both characters are fantastic. Both Sir Patrick Stewart and William Shatner are on top form, and Kirk’s death toward the end of the film was a truly heartbreaking moment. The early part of the film also explored a small portion of the unseen years in between The Original Series and The Next Generation – an era which, I’d argue, would make for an interesting prequel film or series.

Malcolm McDowell plays Soran, who is a devious and truly impressive villain, and the film ties itself neatly to The Next Generation with the return of the Duras Sisters. Kirk’s death wasn’t the only devastating loss in Generations, either, as we also have to say goodbye to the Enterprise-D after seven years. Just as in The Search for Spock a decade previously, the loss of the Enterprise was a genuinely emotional moment.

Star Trek can tell deeply emotional stories – and Picard’s arc in the film as he loses his only remaining blood relatives, and is then tempted by the Nexus giving him a family of his own is a great example of this. The Nexus itself, and how exactly it works, is left a little ambiguous as of the end of the film, but it managed to avoid the trap of The Final Frontier and stay clear of portraying it in a quasi-religious way, even though the whole story with Soran being desperate to get back can, in some ways, be taken as an analogy for religious zealotry.

As a fan of both The Original Series and The Next Generation, and both captains, this crossover story always feels fantastic.

So that’s it. I managed to get the films into some kind of vague ranking! It wasn’t an easy task, because on a given day I might have a craving to sit down and watch The Final Frontier or Star Trek Beyond, and even though I don’t consider them as good as others in the franchise, they still have enjoyable moments. When films in a series can be so different from one another, it can be hard to pin down which ones are subjectively “better”.

Nevertheless, I gave it my best shot!

The Star Trek franchise, including all films 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.

Inappropriate things to watch while self-isolating

Depending on where you are in the world, you may have been suggested, requested, or outright forced into self-isolation as a result of coronavirus. I’m one of the people you’re keeping safe by self-isolating – I have a fairly complicated set of health issues, several of which tick the boxes for putting me at greater risk from the illness. So thank you for helping to keep me safe, I appreciate it!

But being stuck at home is awful if you aren’t used to it, so as a way of saying thanks for staying indoors and limiting the spread of this disease, here are a few television series and films that would make for highly inappropriate quarantine viewing.

Spoiler Warning: There may be spoilers ahead for the titles on this list. If you haven’t seen one and want to be certain of avoiding spoilers, skip ahead to the next entry just to be safe.

Film #1: Contagion (2011)

Bodies being buried in mass graves in Contagion.

Contagion takes a realistic approach to a global pandemic, focusing on the doctors and scientists leading the response and trying to find a cure. It demonstrates how a pandemic can easily get out of control, and how those tasked with leading the response can be just as in the dark as everyone else in the early stages of an outbreak. There’s a great performance from Lawrence Fishburne in particular.

Film #2: I Am Legend (2007)

Will Smith in I Am Legend.

A scientist attempting to find a cure for cancer accidentally releases a pathogen which kills more than 90% of the world’s population and turns almost all of the rest into zombie-like creatures. Dedicated to his research, he stays in an eerily abandoned New York City trying to reverse the effects. I Am Legend is, in parts, a very emotional film, and its ending, while deliberately ambiguous, seems to suggest that the zombies were a lot more “human” than they were given credit for.

Film #3: 28 Days Later (2002)

London is deserted in 28 Days Later.

A man wakes up from a coma in a hospital to find it deserted and the world outside ravaged by zombies. No, this isn’t television’s The Walking Dead, but it’s 28 Days Later, a film directed by Danny Boyle. Set in the UK in the aftermath of a virus called “rage” that turns people into living zombies, a small group of survivors look to escape London and find safety.

Film #4: World War Z (2013)

Brad Pitt in World War Z.

This Brad Pitt-led film gets somewhat of a bad rap, perhaps because it was so different from its source material. As a zombie infection begins to spread, a scientist must travel across the world in search of a cure. Things get progressively worse as society collapses around him.

Film #5: The Road (2009)

Father and son share a drink in The Road.

Not specifically about a virus – though that could perhaps be the cause of The Road’s unspecified disaster – this film focuses on a father and son as they try to survive in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event. A strongly character-driven story looking at a dark, gritty post-apocalyptic environment where people will do anything to survive, it’s a fascinating, if depressing, film.

Film #6: The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson in one of cinema’s most iconic scenes.

What better to watch when stuck in place with no one to talk to than a film about a man being driven insane by being stuck in place with no one to talk to? This adaptation of the Steven King novel is a classic, and one of Jack Nicholson’s most legendary performances. It recently spawned a sequel – Doctor Sleep – but that film didn’t seem to have recaptured the magic.

Film #7: The Purge (2013)

Masked attackers terrorise a family in The Purge.

If you want to torture yourself with fears about being burgled and having your home broken into in these days of a supposedly limited police response to what they deem “less-important” crimes, why not check out 2013’s The Purge? In an America which has solved crime by legalising crimes for one night of the year, the film sees a family hunker down in their home as criminals try to break in. Can they survive the night?

Film #8: The Hole (2001)

Teenagers trapped underground in The Hole.

A group of teenagers end up locked in an underground bunker after a party goes wrong. They begin to run out of food and medicine while trapped, unable to leave the “hole” – they should’ve stockpiled toilet paper and pasta. A deeply claustrophobic film, The Hole is perfect quarantine viewing!

Television series #1: Survivors (2008)

Abby wakes up in a post-apocalyptic world in Survivors.

A small group of people must survive in a post-apocalyptic UK, after a disease has ravaged the world and killed the vast majority of the population. The disparate group must pull together to overcome obstacles in the world the virus has left behind, and contend with people who become incredibly selfish in the face of survival. As a show that examines the duality of human nature in the face of disaster, Survivors is a fascinating look at the post-apocalypse.

Television series #2: The Andromeda Strain (2008)

A dead body in The Andromeda Strain.

A loose adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel, The Andromeda Strain is a miniseries which looks at a disease that comes from space – an extraterrestrial microbe. Naturally humanity has no immunity or resistance to the infection, as it comes from space, and it quickly spreads through an American town. Primarily focused on the government response, the miniseries looks at how a situation can spiral out of control.

Television series #3: The Last Ship (2014)

The USS Nathan James in The Last Ship.

This show made my list of the top ten shows of the 2010s a few months ago, and for good reason. It’s a fascinating look at survival and rebuilding in a global pandemic. The action is focused on the crew of the USS Nathan James, a US Navy ship which is tasked with researching and curing a disease called the “red flu”. During Season 1, it becomes clear to the crew that the virus is far worse than they imagined and that society is on the precipice of collapse. Along with lone virologist Dr Rachel Scott, Capt. Chandler and his crew race to find a cure before it’s too late for humanity’s remaining survivors, but they must contend with a Russian ship which is also researching the disease. Later seasons introduce other antagonists, like the crew of a rogue submarine and pirates in East Asia, and look at how American society is slowly being rebuilt.

Television series #4: Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak (2019)

Title card for Pandemic.

I actually have a review for this series already posted on the blog – you can find it by clicking or tapping here. A documentary looking at various aspects of pandemic prevention, including attempts to synthesise a general cure for all kinds of flu, Pandemic is an interesting look at its subject matter – if somewhat politically slanted and limited by its focus on specific individuals. It attempts to be a broad overview of the subject matter, and although an incomplete picture, it is genuinely interesting.

Television series #5: The Stand (1994)

Gary Sinise in The Stand.

Based on a Steven King novel, this miniseries looks at the accidental release of a biological weapon based on influenza, which is rapidly spread across the United States. The disease has a massive death toll, leaving only a few survivors worldwide. The miniseries featured some great performances from actors who either were big stars already or who would go on to find further fame later on, like Gary Sinise, Rob Lowe, and Molly Ringwald.

Television series #6: Helix (2015)

Promotional image for Helix.

Helix is one of those shows that starts off great but gets progressively worse as its story progresses. At a remote research station in the Arctic, a disease has infected a number of scientists and workers. A team from the CDC is dispatched to bring the infection under control, and the plot then spirals into a zombie story, a family drama, and a global conspiracy of silver-eyed immortals. Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager) guest stars, and the cast is led by Star Trek: The Next Generation guest star William O. Campbell.

Television series #7: The Strain (2014)

One of The Strain’s vampires.

The way this vampire story unfolds – particularly in its first few episodes – focuses very much on how the infection spreads from one “master” vampire to everyone else. Focusing on a CDC doctor in New York City, this show has a great cast – including David Bradley, whose performance is outstanding – and is a fun bit of fantasy-horror in a modern setting.

Television series #8: Twelve Monkeys (2015)

Title card for Twelve Monkeys.

Based on a film from the 1990s, Twelve Monkeys is a time-travel series that starts off with a fascinating premise: a man must travel to the present day from a future where a deliberately-released disease has killed off most of humanity. Over the course of the first season, the time-traveller unites with a doctor from our time to track down the source of the virus. Later seasons go off the rails and stop looking at the disease, focusing on a conspiracy to destroy time itself(?) at which point I stopped watching. But the first season in particular is outstanding and thoroughly worth a watch.

Video game #1: The Last Of Us (2013)

Promotional image for The Last Of Us.

Another one of my top tens of the 2010s, this time in the video games category, The Last Of Us is essentially a road trip that sees a man escort a young girl across America, twenty years after a fungus-based disease brought down society. In a few secure locations, some semblance of the American government still exists, but for the most part it’s everyone for themselves out in the wilderness. There are some beautiful locations for players to explore – even though the game was released on last generation’s PlayStation 3. And not to spoil anything, but the final act of the game is incredibly emotional and a great example of a videogame telling a story that would be just as at home on the big or small screen.

Video game #2: Plague Inc. (2012)

Promotional screenshot for Plague Inc.

Now available for PC, this game started on smartphones just at the right time, when phones were taking off and becoming a legitimate gaming platform. Rather than taking on the role of humans facing a disease, Plague Inc. sees players take on the role of the disease itself. There are various types from viruses to bacteria to fungal spores, and diseases must be upgraded in order to achieve the goal of wiping out humanity. Striking the right balance between being sufficiently contagious, able to remain undetected, severe enough to cause mass deaths, and able to adapt to and outsmart human researchers is no easy challenge – so be prepared for a lot of defeats before you’re finally able to get your version of coronavirus to kill everyone.

Star Trek has looked at diseases, quarantines, and issues surrounding isolation at many points in its history, so as an addendum to the main list, here are a few episodes from various iterations of the Star Trek franchise which would also make for inappropriate self-isolation viewing!

Star Trek episode #1: The Conscience of the King (The Original Series, 1966)

Kirk must solve the riddle of this man’s identity.

Years before he assumed command of the Enterprise, Captain Kirk was resident on a colony which ran out of food. In an attempt to save lives, the colony’s governor condemned half of the population to death so that the remaining food could be rationed among the other half – those he deemed worthy of survival. When a man beams aboard the Enterprise who may be the tyrannical governor, Kirk must put the pieces together.

Star Trek episode #2: The Deadly Years (The Original Series, 1967)

A terrified Chekov in The Deadly Years.

Several senior Enterprise crew members are afflicted with a disease which causes rapid ageing. Dr McCoy and his medical staff must try to find a cure – before it’s too late! Not even Spock is immune, and it seems as though the ship and its entire crew are in danger.

Star Trek episode #3: Starship Mine (The Next Generation, 1993)

Picard talks to the mercenaries in Starship Mine.

Trapped alone aboard a deserted Enterprise-D, Picard must contend with intruders set on stealing a byproduct of the ship’s warp drive. Without any of his friends or crew to help, Picard must outsmart the mercenaries using only what he can find on the deserted ship. Starship Mine is actually one of my favourite episodes of The Next Generation.

Star Trek episode #4: Genesis (The Next Generation, 1994)

Barclay attempts to diagnose himself, kicking off the events of Genesis.

An attempt to cure a case of the flu goes horribly wrong, resulting in the “de-evolution” of the Enterprise-D’s crew into various inhuman monsters. Picard and the immune Data must synthesise an antidote before it’s too late!

Star Trek episode #5: Armageddon Game (Deep Space Nine, 1994)

Chief O’Brien is in a bad way in Armageddon Game.

Infected with a biological weapon, O’Brien is dying and trapped in hostile territory with Dr Bashir. This episode would mark a major milestone in the friendship of these two characters, whose relationship would be a significant factor in later seasons of Deep Space Nine.

Star Trek episode #6: The Quickening (Deep Space Nine, 1996)

Dax and Bashir work on a cure.

The Dominion used a biological weapon (the titular “quickening”) to punish a wayward planet. Dr Bashir attempts to find a cure for the disease, which can cause rapid death, in an episode which was an interesting look at how doctors cope with an “unwinnable” situation.

Star Trek episode #7: Phage (Voyager, 1995)

Tom Paris and The Doctor work to help Neelix in Phage.

Voyager encounters the Vidiians, a species suffering from a centuries-long plague which causes their bodies to rot. They survive by becoming pirates, capturing others and stealing body parts to replace their own disease-ravaged ones. The Phage would crop up several times in Voyager, and despite the best efforts of the crew they never managed to find a cure.

Star Trek episode #8: Year of Hell, Parts 1 & 2 (Voyager, 1997)

The USS Voyager suffers extensive damage in the two-part episode Year of Hell.

A time-travel story in which the Voyager crew see their ship constantly attacked and running out of energy and resources. Crew members die and become maimed, the ship falls apart and whole sections become uninhabitable, and resources dwindle to the point where Capt. Janeway gives the order to abandon ship.

Star Trek episode #9: A Night in Sickbay (Enterprise, 2002)

Porthos in A Night In Sickbay.

Capt. Archer’s beloved pet dog becomes ill with an alien virus, and he spends a tense night in sickbay with Dr Phlox as they wait to see whether Porthos will pull through. A Night in Sickbay is a surprisingly emotional episode that any pet owner can relate to.

Star Trek episode #10: Observer Effect (Enterprise, 2005)

Sato and Tucker suffering from the effects of a virus.

Sato and Tucker are infected with a silicon-based virus in this Enterprise episode, while the crew are being observed by a noncorporeal race who want to see if they can figure out a cure in time. Observer Effect served as a semi-prequel to The Original Series episode Errand of Mercy, featuring the same alien race.

So that’s it. I hope we can all stay safe and well during these strange times, and if you are told to stay at home please follow the instructions of the authorities in your local area. I know it can be frustrating and that “cabin fever” is a real sensation, but if we all comply we’ll all come out the other side and life can get back to normal.

Staying at home isn’t just for your own selfish benefit – it helps people like me, who have health issues and would be more likely to suffer complications from coronavirus. It also helps doctors, hospitals, and healthcare providers to not become overwhelmed with tens of thousands of cases all at once. I’ve seen lots of people, including in some major national newspapers, arguing that because coronavirus is “not that bad” that everyone should just carry on as normal. And while we should all certainly be avoiding panic-buying, things cannot carry on as normal, at least not in the short-term. By staying in, avoiding as much contact with people as possible, and maintaining a high level of hygiene, we can slow the spread of the disease which will relieve the pressure on hospitals and allow more time for the development of a vaccine. Staying at home isn’t actually all that difficult, especially with YouTube, Netflix, Disney+, digital videogame platforms, hundreds of television channels, and the entire internet providing us with so much to do.

If none of the shows, films, or episodes I’ve semi-jokingly listed seem like something you’re interested in, then stay tuned because I’ll be bringing you more lists and reviews of things to watch while you’re stuck indoors. Once again, I urge all of my readers to follow local advice and requirements, and do what you’re told to avoid making things worse and inadvertently spreading this nasty disease to others.

Stay safe everyone!

All episodes, games, television series, and films listed above are the copyright of their respective studios, publishers, distributors, producers, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

A few of the best holiday sales deals for PC gamers

It’s the time of year where the main digital shops for PC games have big sales, and there are some great deals in there that are worth checking out.

Despite costing more up-front than a console – significantly more, depending on what kind of specs you go for – using a PC as your primary gaming platform can save money in the long run when you take into account sales like these. If you’re willing to wait a little and not jump on a brand new title on release day, within a year you’ll almost certainly find it discounted.

That’s not to say PC is necessarily the best option for budget gaming, but it is worth considering that many titles can be bought at a significant discount this time of year. If I were giving advice on the absolute best budget setup, I’d have to say that an Xbox One S with Xbox’s GamePass service is hard to beat. GamePass is a subscription service (think Netflix, but for games) and with the lower entry price of the Xbox One S you can be set up and playing a bunch of titles pretty quickly – assuming you have a good internet connection. But we’re getting off the subject.

I’ve had a look at the big sales over the last couple of days, and I’ve picked a few titles that are worth grabbing for the discounted price.

Disclaimer: discounts and prices are in GBP and may vary depending on where you are in the world. Prices are correct at time of writing; sales end at the beginning of January. The list is in no particular order.

Spoiler Warning: Though I’ve tried not to spoil the plots of titles listed below, minor spoilers may be present.

Number 1: Mass Effect 2 (Origin) £4.49, plus £8.79 for all DLC

Promo screenshot for Mass Effect 2 featuring Jacob, Tali, and Commander Shepard.

I named Mass Effect 2 as my number one game of the decade a little while ago, and I absolutely stand by that. The game tells a story that would be at home as a big-budget television show or series of films, as Commander Shepard must put together a crew for a dangerous mission to stop an alien race abducting human colonists.

It’s a much more streamlined version of the first game in the series, with fewer weapon and ammo options cluttering up your inventory. The third-person shooting mechanics are great, and the addition of biotic and technical powers adds an extra dimension to combat.

For a game that is basically ten years old by now, it still holds up remarkably well from a graphical point of view. For £4.49 it’s well worth a punt, though if you want the complete story – including the mission which bridges the gap between this title and its (somewhat disappointing) sequel, you’ll have to get the DLC pack as well.

Number 2: Fallout 3: Game of the Year Edition (Steam, £4.49)

Promo screenshot of Fallout 3.

Considering that for £4.49 you’re getting the entire main game of Fallout 3 plus five DLC packs, there’s a lot of content here.

Taking place in a post-apocalyptic Washington DC, Fallout 3 dumps players in a large open world. There is a main quest to follow, but there are also dozens of side-quests and other factions and NPCs to meet and engage with. There’s also a “karma” system – with points awarded for bad and good behaviour respectively. Doing bad things to people will result in negative karma and vice versa – these can affect gameplay.

With a ton of ways to play thanks to character creation and levelling-up systems allowing you a huge range of customisation options, Fallout 3 is a steal at this price and if you really get sucked into its world, will give you hours and hours of entertainment.

I’d absolutely recommend Fallout 3 over Fallout 4. But whatever you do, don’t buy the catastrophe that is Fallout 76.

Number 3: The Epic Games Store – Free £10/$10 voucher

This isn’t a single game, but the Epic Game Store is currently offering a free voucher to spend on games over £14.99. I know that the Epic Games Store has been controversial in PC gaming circles because of its aggressive policy of paying for exclusive titles, but they’re currently offering a £10 voucher to anyone who’s signed up.

The voucher is valid until May next year, and can be used on most games priced over £14.99, which includes titles that are currently on sale. It isn’t valid on pre-orders or in-game content, but if you figure a title has been discounted by £10, and you can save another £10 thanks to the voucher, it stacks up to be a pretty good deal.

I have heard that the discount is also available in Euros and US Dollars, but you’ll have to confirm on the Epic Games Store website that the deal is available in your region.

Number 4: Age of Empires: Definitive Edition (Steam, £3.75)

A comparison of the changes from the original version to the Definitive Edition.

Age of Empires came out in 1997, and was the first real-time strategy game that I played on PC. Microsoft spent a long time reworking this classic of the genre for modern PCs, and though the wait seemed to last forever, the end result was worth it.

Though many people prefer Age of Empires II, I’ve always had a special respect for what the original game did – for both my own PC gaming experience and for the genre as a whole. And the opportunity to dive back in when the Definitive Edition was released was too tempting to pass up.

You start with a Stone Age tribe of humans and have to build a town, while managing such resources as food, wood, stone, and gold. And in addition, you have an array of combat units to fight off other players (either AI or real people if you feel up to that). Battles can be intense in Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, and with the number of units you can have in any one game being raised from the original 50 all the way up to 250 this time around, be prepared for some truly epic fights.

There are campaigns as well if you want more of a story, but I’ve always preferred to set up random matches against AI opponents.

Number 5: Banished (Steam, £5.09)

A town in Banished on this promo screenshot.

Another title from my top games of the decade, Banished is a town building and management game.

If you can imagine Age of Empires without the fighting, you’re close to understanding what Banished is about. Players start with a small number of citizens and a stockpile of resources, and must work to keep citizens fed, clothed, healthy, and happy. Striking the balance is harder than it sounds, and gathering all of the necessary resources to build all the different buildings needed takes time.

Different factors affect how well citizens will perform – if they lack suitable clothing they’ll need to spend more time keeping warm, or if they weren’t educated at your town’s school house they will work less efficiently.

Considering the entire game was built by just one single person, Banished is an amazingly detailed experience, one that’s very easy to get stuck into and lose hours playing.

Number 6: Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Origin, £5.11)

A few of Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga‘s huge roster of characters.

When it was released in 2007, Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga contained levels set across all six Star War films. Obviously since then we’ve seen the Star Wars universe expand, but that doesn’t mean that this incredibly fun game is not worth taking a look at, especially when it’s on sale.

If you’ve never played any of the Lego games, they take whatever their setting is and make it incredibly fun. This is a very polished game, and has literally hundreds of collectables and unlockables hidden throughout its numerous levels. Every major and minor Star Wars character from the first six films makes an appearance – and when unlocked, almost all are playable.

Going back to a previously-beaten level with a different set of characters might unlock new areas or allow access to previously-off limits collectables, and finding every single hidden Lego kit and collecting every single coin to 100% complete Lego Star Wars is a heck of a task. For such a low price there’s a lot to do here, and while it isn’t a game that takes itself seriously in any way, it’s great fun and well worth a look. I’ve even played this with people who aren’t Star Wars fans and they all had a great time.

Number 7: The Witcher 3: Game of the Year Edition (GOG, £10.49)

Promo screenshot for The Witcher 3.

Big disclaimer: I haven’t played this game for myself. But The Witcher 3 is held up by many gamers as one of the best single-player experiences ever created, and with the Game of the Year Edition at 70% off, giving you the main game and both of its expansions, I’d say the reviews alone make it worth a look if you’re like me and haven’t got around to playing yet.

Excitement for the series is sky-high at the moment, thanks to Netflix’s The Witcher series getting rave reviews and being picked up for a second season. So maybe this could be a good time to finally jump into this world.

Number 8: Project CARS (Steam, £5.84)

A race in Project CARS.

For some reason, racing games over the last few years have all ended up looking absolutely stunning, and Project CARS is no exception. For a game that’s approaching its fifth anniversary it looks incredible, and even if it were released today it would still be a great-looking title.

But there’s more to a game than graphics, and luckily Project CARS has a lot to offer for racing fans. There are 65 cars in the base game, with others available as DLC – and the DLC packs are also on offer at the moment. Each car can be tuned to fit the way you want to race, and there’s both a career mode as well as the freedom to set up individual races.

Number 9: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (Steam, Origin, and Epic Games Store, £45.64)

Main character Cal Kestis in a promo image for Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.

Another big disclaimer: I haven’t played this game yet. But Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is a return to single-player gaming for the Star Wars franchise, and by all accounts it’s a great game. Some reviewers have criticised the difficulty – even comparing it to Dark Souls – but there is a “story mode” which supposedly reduces this significantly.

This isn’t going to be a game like Knights of the Old Republic, because it’s not a role-playing game in the same way as those classic titles. It’s more in the vein of an adventure title like the Uncharted series, but with a Star Was setting.

When you factor in that the £10 voucher will actually let you nab this for £35.64, this might be a title worth picking up over on the Epic Games Store, and considering it’s only been out for a month or so, the 17% discount seems generous.

Number 10: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series (Steam, £5.01 or Origin, £4.74)

A battle taking place in this Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II promo screenshot.

I mentioned the Knights of the Old Republic games in the entry above, and at £5 or less for both games, that’s a pretty great deal in my opinion. I played both titles on the original Xbox when they were new, and they’re absolutely incredible.

Taking a setting several thousand years prior to the events of the main Star Wars films, Bioware gave themselves an almost blank canvas to tell a really exciting story of a war between Sith and Jedi. And you actually get to choose whether to stay with the Light Side or allow your character to succumb to the Dark – with different outcomes in both games depending on which path you choose to follow.

Some people will tell you that Knights of the Old Republic II is the better title, but both are incredibly strong stories, wholly single-player, and a lot of fun to spend hours with. The non-linear nature of the story, as well as a number of optional side-quests, and of course the differing Light Side and Dark Side paths, combine to make both titles very replayable.

Number 11: The Monkey Island Collection (Steam, £7.64)

Promo screenshot for Monkey Island 2.

A series whose first two titles date back to the days of MS-DOS, Monkey Island is a hilarious pirate-themed point-and-click adventure. The first two titles – The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge – have been remastered with voice acting and up-to-date graphics in this collection.

The series follows the story of wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood, as he blunders his way across the Caribbean. I don’t want to spoil any of the jokes, but the series has an incredible sense of humour.

These games require a lot of puzzling and thinking, figuring out which objects in your inventory could be combined or used to interact with the environment. There are walkthroughs online, though, so if you get stuck help is available.

And the third game, The Curse of Monkey Island, has one of my all-time favourite NPCs: Murray the talking skull.

Number 12: Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition (Steam, £2.39)

Promo screenshot for Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition.

In a strange way, the manner in which Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition portrayed Hong Kong felt familiar to me – I’d played Shenmue II years previously, and despite never having set foot in the city, playing Sleeping Dogs felt like a strange homecoming of sorts.

The game takes the Grand Theft Auto playbook and completely changes it up – firstly by switching the setting from America to Hong Kong, and secondly by making the player character an undercover police officer instead of a criminal.

There’s a hugely detailed story to get stuck into, and an exciting open world that genuinely feels lived-in. I have no idea why the game is so heavily discounted, but for less than the price of a drink you’ll get hours of fun, both from the main game and its DLC packs.

Number 13: Euro Truck Simulator 2 or American Truck Simulator (Steam, £3.74)

The view from your cab in this promo screenshot of American Truck Simulator.

If you’re looking for a slower-paced experience, something to do while you listen to your favourite tunes, or you’re just a big fan of trucking, one or both of these titles might appeal to you.

The Truck Simulator games put you in the boots of a truck driver, giving you journeys across either Europe or the United States to complete in exchange for cash you can use to buy new vehicles and upgrade your fleet. Business management is part of the simulation, but at its core it’s primarily a driving game.

This isn’t like a Grand Theft Auto or Crazy Taxi title where you’re rushing around, not caring about damage to your vehicle or the environment. Collisions will cost money, and the point of the game isn’t to kill and destroy, it’s to relax and enjoy the beautiful environments. American Truck Simulator is my favourite of the two, simply because of the scenery, but both games are strangely compelling, and if you need to unwind or just have time to waste, you could do a lot worse.

Number 14: The Outer Worlds (Epic Games Store, £37.49)

Promo screenshot for The Outer Worlds.

Another title that comes with the “I haven’t played it yet” disclaimer, but The Outer Worlds received stellar reviews from critics. Coming from Obsidian Entertainment – the team behind games like Knights of the Old Republic II and Fallout: New Vegas – this wholly original title takes players to a distant outer space colony where corporations are in charge.

The environments look amazing, and from what I hear the story is an exciting one. Another game that might be worth spending that £10 voucher on, The Outer Worlds has been on my radar for a while, and I can’t wait to see what it has in store.

Number 15: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind – Game of the Year Edition (Steam and GOG, £3.89)

The town of Seyda Neen in a screenshot for The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.

Another of my all-time favourite games, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind represented a massive jump in both quality and scale over its two predecessors, and really set the stage for future Bethesda titles – including Skyrim and the Fallout series. The roots of what would become Skyrim are here on full display, and while the game’s lack of voice acting and heavy reliance on text may be offputting for some, it is an incredibly detailed experience.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind actually offers a lot more than its sequels, Oblivion and Skyrim, in some respects. There are more weapon types – including throwing knives and spears – and more factions to join – including three great houses. Considering this game was first released in 2002, it was incredibly ambitious, and the open world it created, while imperfect and dated by today’s standards, was a monumental achievement.

Hundreds of hours of gameplay await if you really get stuck in, and because of the huge number of factions it isn’t possible to complete every single quest and side-quest in one playthrough – so there’s always a reason to come back. I bought the game when it first came out on the original Xbox, and in 17 years I still haven’t completed 100% of the game. There really is just that much to do here.

Honourable mentions:

It isn’t possible to detail every single game that’s currently on sale, such is the scope of Steam and other shops. But I found a few more that would be just as worthy of an entry on the list above:

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Steam, £3.89) – If Morrowind‘s reliance on text isn’t your thing, Oblivion is fully voice-acted and is a great entry in the series in its own right.
Two Point Hospital (Steam, £8.49) – A spiritual successor to classic title Theme Hospital, this game is a hospital management title with a real sense of humour.
Steel Division: Normandy ’44 (Steam, £11.89) – A realistic WWII real-time strategy title with a detailed and exciting single-player campaign.
Control (Epic Games Store, £32.15) – Another contender for your £10 voucher, Control is a supernatural third-person adventure.
The Sims 4 (Origin, £8.74) – It can be hard to recommend The Sims when considering the price of all of the various expansions, but at this discounted price it could be worth it if you want to try the most up-to-date edition of the classic life simulator.
Shenmue I & II (Steam, £8.49) – Absolutely among my all-time favourite games, Shenmue tells a slow-burning, cinematic story of revenge, set in a wonderfully realistic open world.
Resident Evil 2 Remake (Steam, £14.84) – Considering this is one of the best games of the year and only came out in January, this horror title’s 67% discount is huge.
Star Wars Battlefront II (Origin, £19.99) – Though incredibly controversial upon release for its microtransactions, Battlefront II has a solid single-player campaign, which has been updated with a free expansion, and the story it told was worth the asking price.
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown (Steam, £24.99) – A fun, arcade-style air combat game with an interesting story.
Rise of Nations: Extended Edition (Steam, £3.74) – Similar in some ways to Age of Empires, this game is a fun RTS title that takes you through almost all of human history right up to the present.

So that’s it. A few titles I found that are worth considering before the sale ends at the beginning of next month. I reckon if you bought all fifteen entries on the list, you’d have spent £143.58 (assuming using the £10 Epic Games Store voucher) and that works out at less than £10 a game – including two brand new, expensive titles. Excluding Jedi: Fallen Order and The Outer Worlds, you’d spend £70.45 and have a huge library of games to play heading into 2020.

These sales are part of what gives PC gaming an edge over consoles, and even if you just want one or two new titles to play, there are some great discounts on plenty of games across every genre.

I hope this has been helpful for some of you. Remember that sales are currently taking place on GOG, Origin, the Epic Games Store, and Steam – and a number of titles are available in multiple shops so it’s worth shopping around to make absolutely sure you’re getting the best discount.

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer and/or publisher. Prices listed are for the UK versions only and were correct as of 22/12/2019. Sales end at the beginning of January – though it’s possible some discounts may end sooner. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

A festive list to get you in the holiday spirit!

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

Tis the season to be jolly… and all that. There are some fun Christmas films and television specials, and with it being only four days till the big day, I thought I’d share a few of my favourites. I’m sure most will be familiar to you, but they’re all worth a watch at this time of year.

With all of the controversy around projects like Star Wars, it’s nice to kick back with an old favourite at this time of year. Some of the titles below are full-on guilty pleasures, the kind of film you’d never watch if it wasn’t Christmas-themed. But there’s nothing wrong with that every once in a while.

These titles are in no particular order, but it’s a list so I had to number them.

Number 1: Carols From King’s (Annual)

Title card for Carols From King’s.

I’m by no means a religious person. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I set foot in a church. But when I was at school, every Christmas just before the end of term we all trooped down to the local church and attended a Christmas carol service. My English teacher would pick on a few of us every year to read aloud some kind of Christmassy poem or short section from a story, so every year while at school I got to take part. The only benefit was that we got to miss a few lessons in the run-up to the event, but that alone made it worthwhile.

Carols From Kings is basically the kind of Christmas carol service I remember from my schooldays – just much better quality(!) There’s a choir, and they sing a selection of Christmas carols interspersed with a few readings and churchy things. While the selection of carols varies somewhat year on year, most of the traditional English carols make an appearance, such as Once In Royal David’s City, or The First Nowell.

As a fan of Christmas music in general, Carols From Kings is a pleasant, calm television programme of the sort that I’d never be interested in at any other time of year. At the end of the day, all it really is is a church choir singing Christmas carols – but that’s okay. Of course if you just wanted to hear the music you could find 1,001 versions of all of these carols on any music streaming platform, but seeing it and knowing it was recorded live does make it a different experience, and focuses attention on the music and the event itself rather than letting the songs be background noise for whatever else you might be doing.

There are new editions of Carols From King’s recorded every year (or most years, at least). Several past years, including 2018, are available on YouTube at time of writing, and I believe the 2019 edition is to be broadcast on Christmas Eve here in the UK.

Number 2: The Polar Express (2004)

Poster for The Polar Express.

This film was a novel take on the “does Santa Claus exist?” theme that a lot of Christmas titles explore. Following a young boy who finds it hard to believe in Santa, The Polar Express takes the unnamed child on a whirlwind adventure to the North Pole, complete with snow, ice, and a weird train roof-riding hobo.

Notable at the time of its release for its CGI animation – which some critics called “creepy” due to its attempts at realism – the film has aged well and has rightly become a modern-day Christmas classic, one which is fun to return to year upon year. I’d especially recommend it for families – though with the caveat that very young children may find a few scenes frightening.

Tom Hanks is on form here, voicing several characters and giving each a unique sound. You might recognise him in the persona of the train’s conductor, such is the nature of semi-realistic CGI animation, but some great voice acting ensures his other characters are unrecognisable.

Trains – especially toy steam engines – have somewhat of an association with Christmas, so The Polar Express doesn’t come from nowhere. However, its unique approach to Christmas, Santa Claus, and the North Pole, as well as some comical moments, make for a fun modern Christmas film with heart. The message is that Santa is real, and for little ones wavering on that issue it might be a reassurance. And though it’s primarily a fun adventure for kids, there’s some entertainment for grown-ups to have here as well.

Number 3: Father Christmas (1991)

The VHS and/or DVD box art for Father Christmas.

A semi-sequel to 1982’s The Snowman, Father Christmas sets out to answer a simple question: what does Santa do for the other 364 days of the year? Apparently the answer is that he takes a massive round-the-world holiday. And gets drunk.

As a kid, the scene where Father Christmas (as Santa is known in the UK) gets completely trashed and starts hallucinating/dreaming and throwing up was a really weird thing to witness. And that sequence may be why this animated short doesn’t seem to be readily available at the moment. It is, of course, online on various streaming sites – none of which I’d happily recommend, so take your own chances – but it is on DVD at least here in the UK.

Clocking in at only 25 minutes, it’s a bit steep to pay a lot of money for a copy, but it is a fun, wholly British, and entirely tongue-in-cheek look at Santa’s everyday life. For some reason he lives in a terraced house in the UK. And has a pet dog and cat. And his neighbours seem blissfully unaware of his true identity.

The animation style is, frankly, outdated. It’s very much a product of its time, with a particular hand-drawn style that may not be to everyone’s taste. And as mentioned, a few scenes may be offputting for sensitive young ones. But there is a bloomin’ great song (which you can almost certainly find on YouTube).

Number 4: The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Could it be? A Star Wars film worse than The Phantom Menace?

I’m kidding – no one should watch this nonsense.

Thankfully non-canonical, the Star Wars Holiday Special takes classic characters from the original film and sets up the premise of Life Day – a celebration on Chewbacca’s home planet.

It has been rightly ridiculed for its bad script, bad effects, and for being an all-round failure.

It is, however, a wholly unique piece of television. Sometimes bad films make for entertaining viewing simply because of how bad they are, and if you have a few Star Wars-loving friends (and a healthy amount of alcohol or other substances) maybe this could be a fun romp for you.

And since this came out before Empire Strikes Back is is technically the first Star Wars sequel.

Still, it’s better than The Phantom Menace.

Real Number 4: Miracle on 34th Street (1947; 1994)

Box art for the 1947 original Miracle on 34th Street.

I actually had a hard time deciding which version of this Christmas classic to put on this list. The 1994 version is a rare example of a successful remake – thanks largely to the wonderful performance of the late Richard Attenborough.

I’m not a huge fan of black-and-white films in general. Not so much the lack of colour itself, but primarily because older films tend to be very dated in their effects, sets, and especially their acting style. I know that’s a horribly subjective statement, but as a very general rule I’d say most films (and TV series) prior to the mid-1960s don’t really work for me. The original Miracle on 34th Street was an exception, however. I actually saw the remake first, probably not long after it was released, and for years I wasn’t even aware there was an older version. When I did encounter it, I was initially put off by the black-and-white and the year it came out, but when I gave it a chance I found the same heartwarming tale underneath.

When a Thanksgiving parade needs a replacement Santa Claus, a man named Kris Kringle steps up – and claims to be the real deal. After being briefly institutionalised, a court case find that (for differing reasons in the two versions) they cannot prove he isn’t Santa – so therefore he can go free.

Actor Edmund Gwenn won both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for his role as Kris Kringle in the original film, and though his performance is in many ways iconic, Richard Attenborough took over the role for the 1994 version and also gave an incredible performance.

Number 5: Love Actually (2003)

Poster for Love Actually.

So here’s a conundrum – is Love Actually a Christmas film, or is it a romantic comedy with a Christmas background? I can’t decide.

Some films seem to pick a Christmas setting and hope it will cover all manner of sins. Not so for Love Actually, because while Christmas serves as a backdrop for the film and the various sets of characters, it’s actually (pun intended) rather good.

Taking multiple plot threads and a huge cast of characters, the completely different stories slowly work their way together over the course of the film. And there are some wonderful performances in there, as well as some funny ones. Hugh Grant’s take on the British Prime Minister came mere months after then-PM Tony Blair took Britain controversially into the Iraq War. And the scene in which Grant’s character stands up to a rude, pushy American President (a pitch-perfect performance from Billy-Bob Thornton) was, in a very real sense, something that large sections of the country were looking for and responded to.

Alan Rickman also gives one of his best performances here, and his on-screen chemistry with Emma Thompson is part of what gives the film its heart.

I didn’t expect Love Actually to become as culturally significant as it is when I first saw it. I dismissed it as “just another rom com”, having seen Hugh Grant in what felt like several dozen similar pictures by that point. But, helped by its Christmas setting no doubt, Love Actually is another modern classic which I think families will enjoy at this time of year for a long time to come.

Number 6: A Christmas Carol (1999)

The 1999 version of A Christmas Carol stars Patrick Stewart.

There are many adaptations of Charles Dickens’ famous novel – the book credited with bringing Christmas back into the popular imagination after a period in which it wasn’t widely celebrated. And many of those versions are good. Some are funny, some are animated, and some take great liberties with the source material. But if I had to pick just one adaptation, the 1999 made-for-TV version is my choice.

Starring Sir Patrick Stewart (hot off his role as Capt. Picard in Star Trek: Insurrection) this version of the story sticks fairly closely to the original novel. There’s nothing especially ground-breaking here, nothing that will change the way future adaptations are viewed. But as a pure adaptation of the novel, I don’t think the performances can be bettered.

Some of the effects, especially those for the ghosts, may look a little dated by now, but overall the film does a great job telling the classic story of bitter old miser Ebenezer Scrooge as he learns to embrace the spirit of Christmas. I’m a big fan of Sir Patrick (as you probably know by now if you’re a regular around here) but his performance here is a great example of why. He carries this film all the way, appearing in practically every scene, and if you can get over the fact that he’s not Jean-Luc Picard and simply enjoy the story being presented, you’re in for a treat because his performance is incredible.

Some actors are inexorably linked to their most iconic roles, and if you’re a huge Star Trek fan perhaps this version will be jarring for you. But stick with it if you can, because in my opinion this is the best adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

Number 7: Phineas and Ferb Christmas Vacation (2009)

Streaming icon for Phineas and Ferb Christmas Vacation.

You might remember from the list of my top television series of the decade, but I’m a big fan of this Disney Channel animated series.

Christmas Vacation is actually one of the best episodes as well, a feature-length episode in which the evil Dr Doofenshmirtz builds a machine to make everyone in town naughty – thus cancelling Christmas. The boys manage to save the day, of course, and there’s plenty of mayhem and fun along the way.

The soundtrack to this special episode is great, too, featuring a couple of Christmas classics and a few original songs – including a Christmas-themed version of the show’s opening song.

If you’re a sucker for the “Christmas is in danger, then someone saves it” plot cliché – and I absolutely am – then this will be a fun time. Yes it’s a kids’ show, but Phineas and Ferb has always been a series that holds some appeal to adults too, so it’s not without merit here. It’s by no means an original premise, but it is a uniquely Phineas and Ferb take on that premise, and as a fan of the series it’s great to come back to this special at this time of year.

The soundtrack album (which also includes a few tracks from a couple of other holiday episodes) is also well worth a listen. Yes, I bought it.

Number 8: Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

DVD box art for Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Every family has different Christmas traditions, and these traditions vary an awful lot from country to country. It wasn’t until I spent a Christmas in the United States that I became aware of this charming stop-motion film, and I think from people I’ve spoken to that it doesn’t have as big of a following over here.

Despite first encountering Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer as an adult, I had a fun time with this film and enjoyed a look at another country’s idea of a Christmas classic. And a classic it certainly is – it was on TV dozens of times in the run-up to Christmas when I lived in the States, and almost everyone I spoke to reacted with incredulity when I said I’d never seen it.

It’s a re-telling of the Rudolph story with a few original characters that haven’t appeared elsewhere, like Yukon Cornelius, and Hermey the elf who wants to be a dentist. After facing rejection, the characters run away together, only to be welcomed back after their adventures in a heartwarming tale of… bullies that decide to stop bullying? I guess.

Number 9: Delia’s Classic Christmas (2009)

Delia’s Classic Christmas DVD box art.

I wanted to put at least one cookery programme on this list, because of all the various holidays and events throughout the year, none are so intrinsically linked to food as Christmas.

Delia Smith is the original British television cook, appearing on TV since at least the 1980s. Her 2009 outing – Delia’s Classic Christmas – is exactly what it sounds like. British Christmas classic dishes, presented in her trademark gentle style.

As a collection of classics, don’t expect much outside the mainstream of British cuisine. That’s actually what I like about this television special, because in many ways, Christmas is the one time of year where traditions dominate and it’s great to celebrate that. In this case, we’re talking about food traditions like roast turkey with all the trimmings. For my American readers, Turkey has been traditional Christmas fare in the UK for at least the last century. Though some families will still opt for ham or beef as their main meat of choice, turkey is still the king. And because we don’t have Thanksgiving, this is for most people their main turkey dinner of the season – possibly of the whole year.

But to get back to Delia’s Classic Christmas for a moment, Delia Smith’s style of presenting is just pleasant and enjoyable to watch. This is pure light entertainment at its festive best, and even if cookery shows wouldn’t normally be your thing, maybe you can make an exception at this time of year. It does wonders to get me excited for my Christmas dinner, anyway!

Number 10: Die Hard (1988)

Bruce Willis on the poster for Die Hard.

I debated whether or not to put Die Hard on this list. Is it a Christmas film? Or is it an action film with a couple of Christmas references? That argument will rage on and on, I fear.

Christmas film or not though, Die Hard is a classic of the action genre. While its sequels haven’t really lived up to the original, that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment here. Bruce Willis is on form as action hero John McClane – trapped in a building under siege and where terrorists have taken hostages (including his wife), McClane slowly cuts his way through the terrorist troupe.

Alan Rickman features on this list for the second time, in his iconic role as terrorist leader Hans Gruber. Though protagonist and antagonist only meet at the film’s climax, their radio communication earlier in the story is fantastic and the way Willis and Rickman portray their characters’ hatred for one another in this limited format is really something to witness.

Die Hard could’ve ended up like so many other action films of its day – a fun but mediocre gun-fest. But there’s something about the two leads, perhaps aided by the Christmas backdrop, that elevates the title to something better.

Number 11: Jingle All The Way (1996)

Poster or DVD box art for Jingle All The Way.

In the entry above for the Star Wars Holiday Special, I mentioned that sometimes a bad film can be entertaining. And make no mistake, Jingle All The Way is, by practically every conceivable measure, a bad film.

It’s on this list purely as a guilty pleasure, and were it not for its Christmas theme it would probably be long-forgotten. In Jingle All The Way, Arnold Schwarzenegger (future Governor of California) has to get his son a must-have Christmas toy… but they’re all sold out. What follows is a slapstick comedy in which Arnie fights with another kid’s dad to find the last one on Christmas Eve.

It really is as bad as it sounds – Arnie’s acting has always been wooden at best, and this is certainly not his best performance by a long way. The premise is dumb, and the comedy is really quite stupid in parts, but what’s hiding just below the surface is a story worth telling – one of a family man recognising his flaws and trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his son. Christmas is both the setting and the driving force for the main story, but the idea of a family coming back together from the brink of falling apart is a timeless one in many ways, and one that epitomises Christmas.

Number 12: Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire (1989)

Several main characters from The Simpsons.

Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire is actually the first ever episode of the long-running animated sitcom. And it is a classic in its own right, as Homer tries to turn his financial troubles into a successful family Christmas.

Much of what makes The Simpsons great is on display here. At the end of the day, the series has been so successful and lasted so long because it has heart. There are plenty of funny moments, but despite his failings, it’s easy to root for Homer. He’s a likeable protagonist in this episode.

Arguably this isn’t The Simpsons at its best, because the show probably took at least to the end of the first season to really hit its stride, but despite that, and despite the fact that many of what would become the show’s principal supporting cast aren’t present, it’s a solid episode.

And as a Christmas story, it’s oddly timeless. The down-on-his-luck dad, trying to hide his finances from his family and then having to get into deeper and deeper trouble to cover it up, all while trying to provide them with Christmas gifts is, in an unfortunate way, still as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. While life has changed in many ways since The Simpsons premiered, there are still too many people who don’t have enough money at this time of year – or indeed all through the year. That sense of a real-world situation comes through, despite the fact that we’re looking at a cartoon, and I think that’s what makes it so relatable.

Honourable Mentions:

I couldn’t possibly cover every Christmas film or television special on this list. There are far too many, and there are some real classics that I’ve probably forgotten all about. Here are a few more that could’ve made this list, and are definitely worth a look.

Santa Claws (2014) – Not to be confused with the 1996 horror film of the same name, this family adventure sees a litter of kittens save the day and deliver Santa’s presents – after he has an allergic reaction to them.
The Snowman (1982) – The predecessor to the 1991 film Father Christmas listed above, this animated short sees a boy and his magical snowman go on an adventure.
Home Alone (1990) – A holiday classic. When a young boy is left behind by his family, he has to cope on his own while fending off burglars who want to rob his mansion.
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) – After losing his firm’s money, a desperate man contemplates taking his own life and wishes he was never born. His guardian angel shows him the effect his life has had on others.
The Flight Before Christmas (2008) – A reindeer who’s afraid of flying saves the day in this cute animated film.
Elf (2003) – A human raised by Santa’s elves at the North Pole travels back to the human world in this lighthearted comedy.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – Is it a Halloween film or a Christmas film? Either way, this stop-motion film directed by Tim Burton has become a classic.
The Morecambe and Wise Show Christmas Specials (1968-83) – For well over a decade in the late 1960s, ’70s, and into the ’80s, these variety shows by a comedy duo were the most-watched thing on British television on Christmas Day.
The Nativity Story (2006) – Future Star Wars actor Oscar Isaac features as Jesus’ father Joseph in this re-telling of the Biblical story.

So that’s it. A few Christmas specials and films to get us all in the holiday mood now that we’re on the home stretch. Only four days left and then it’ll all be over for another year!

I hope you all have a Merry Christmas!

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

Disappointments of the decade

I initially thought about doing another top ten list for games, films, and television series that left me disappointed or underwhelmed in the 2010s, but the truth is that I don’t think I could reasonably find ten of each that I was genuinely disappointed by. There have been a few, but not enough to fill three full lists. So I’ve condensed what I had into one piece.

“Disappointment” is a very broad term when it comes to entertainment. For example, a television series I really enjoyed this decade was Terra Nova (it was in the “honourable mentions” section of my list of top ten television series), but despite it being a wonderful show, it was cancelled after one season with a story that hadn’t concluded. That’s a disappointment, undoubtedly. And of course there are films, games, and series that were just outright bad. I can be pretty brutal when it comes to switching off something I’m not enjoying – if it doesn’t seem like it’s improving or will improve, I’ll happily switch to something else. Life’s too short, after all, for bad entertainment.

That said, here are a few titles that, for a variety of reasons, I found to be disappointing in the 2010s. Please keep in mind that, as with previous lists, this is 100% subjective. This in my own opinion, and if you like any or all of these titles, that’s okay. You like what you like and I like what I like – and that’s great!

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for the films, games, and television series listed below. If you don’t want to be spoiled, skip ahead to the next entry.

Film #1: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Promo poster for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

You may remember from my comments on the list of top ten films that I’m not a Marvel fan, all things considered. I’m not a fan of superheroes, nor of comic books; I just never have been and even as a kid I didn’t read comics – my reading preference was for novels and books. Despite this, by 2014 I had managed to watch (most) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films – albeit grudgingly in some cases – and I’d even started watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which was at the time a solid television series.

But then along came Guardians of the Galaxy. I found this film to be an absolute bore from start to finish. The comedy fell flat, the characters were either stupidly uninteresting or childish caricatures who couldn’t stop making (bad) jokes for even ten seconds. But worst of all was the plot. I just couldn’t find a way to care even the tiniest amount about the alien races I’d never seen on a planet I’d never heard of (and can’t even remember the name of) when it was under threat. There were no stakes and thus, no drama. At least in a film like The Avengers, it was New York and Earth that were attacked. In that case I knew the stakes – even if I found the film to be a bland, over-the-top action flick on par with something like Transformers. But Guardians of the Galaxy just failed across the board – uninteresting characters, meaningless aliens, and a threat to an unknown, insignificant planet about which I simply did not care.

On that final point, the film failed to communicate the stakes and get me invested in its world. A lot of sci fi and fantasy stories take place in worlds away from Earth. In The Lord of the Rings, Middle-Earth is threatened – yet I didn’t sit in the cinema thinking “who cares?” the way I did in Guardians of the Galaxy – because Peter Jackson’s films hooked me in and got me invested in its characters and its world. Likewise in the Star Trek franchise – the destruction of Vulcan in 2009’s Star Trek reboot had emotional weight because the film (and the franchise overall) had successfully got the audience invested in its world. This is the failure of Guardians of the Galaxy for me – it just couldn’t make me give a damn what happened. In most of the other Marvel films I’ve seen, I at least worked up enough investment in the films and their setting to want to see it through to the end. But by the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, I was done with Marvel. I skipped a lot of the next films in the series, and when I saw some of the Guardians characters pop up in Avengers: Endgame this year I let out a sigh of disappointment that I had to put up with their crap again. Just a disappointing, uninspiring, boring film that thinks itself to be far funnier and cleverer than it actually is.

Film #2: Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar poster featuring Matthew McConaughey.

Interstellar reminded me exactly why I don’t like time travel stories. It basically takes everything that I find stupid and uninteresting about time travel and combines them into one slog of a film. It rightly received praise upon release for its visuals, including a stunning depiction of a black hole, but that aside there’s not much I enjoyed here, despite the hype.

Sometimes sci fi can be too science-heavy, with not enough attention paid to the “fiction” element – you know, the part which makes stories interesting. Interstellar falls into that trap at points, spending too much time explaining the relationship between gravity, speed, and the passage of time. And when it finally does get away from real-world science into a story, the plot is exceptionally convoluted, even for a time travel film, and it ties itself in knots in the second half basically creating a time loop – a form of paradox which just irks me.

It’s exceptionally hard to do time travel well, precisely for the reasons Interstellar shows. It’s too easy to write yourself into a corner, creating a scenario which is impossible to understand, let alone explain and communicate to your audience. And that just completely takes me out of it and ruins any enjoyment I might have otherwise got from the cast, who overall give good performances – just with a crap script.

Some people have told me I need to rewatch Interstellar four or five times in order to “get it” – as if that’s somehow a point in its favour. If a film is so bad that I barely made it through to the end the first time, I promise you I’m not going back for more. And if the only way your film is any good is on its fifth viewing, then I’m sorry but you made a crap film. And Interstellar, despite its star cast and great visual effects, is absolutely a crap film.

Film #3: Into The Woods (2014)

Poster for Into The Woods.

Musicals aren’t usually my thing. They can work – especially in animation – but most of the time, the cast randomly breaking into song midway through a scene is something I find incredibly jarring. It takes me out of whatever I’m watching, ruining any suspension of disbelief. On the stage or in animation I’m always aware that I’m watching something fictional, but with today’s exceptional visual effects, as well as great costuming and set design, there’s a much greater sense of immersion than in previous decades – and that’s partly what makes the random songs in any musical so offputting, I think.

But anyway, that’s a more general point. Into The Woods features some truly crap songs – sung badly by actors and actresses who aren’t natural singers. So at the numerous points where the film is interrupted by song, the songs aren’t even good or enjoyable to listen to. It also fails as a fantasy film, plagued by over-the-top hammy acting of the kind usually seen in pantomime. In fact, if it were a pantomime, Into The Woods might’ve been alright.

But as with a lot of modern films, Into The Woods wants to make a point. Something about how actions have consequences, maybe? I was so bored by the end I’m not even sure if that’s what it wanted to say. It also tries to satirise the fantasy genre and criticise fairy tales, but instead of gentle parody and laughing with its targets, it comes across as mean-spirited and laughing at them – and at the people who enjoy those genres.

There might’ve been the kernel of an interesting concept buried somewhere in the pre-production of Into The Woods, but it never made it to screen. And the bad acting, bad singing, and overall bad intentions as well as the aggressive, mean nature of the film made it a truly unenjoyable experience.

Film #4: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

The poster for The Force Awakens.

I actually really love this film. And I love its sequel, The Last Jedi, despite what many people have said about it. They are both great films – taken as standalone pieces. As two parts of a greater whole, however, they aren’t anywhere near as good.

The shift in tone from The Force Awakens to The Last Jedi is noticeable, and the reason why is because Disney and Lucasfilm decided that the way the sequel trilogy would be produced is that each writer and director would be given essentially free reign to tell whatever story they wanted. To me, that’s an absolutely absurd and inexplicable decision from a group of accomplished filmmakers. On what planet is that how storytelling works? If you’re creating a trilogy of films you need one writing team to tell a single, cohesive story – one story, told in three parts. Let alone that this trilogy is actually parts seven, eight, and nine to an already-existing series – and that that series happens to be one of the most important works of the genre. I just cannot fathom how this decision came to be made. It doesn’t make sense – and the result is a jarring tonal shift from one film to the next, epitomised by the scene at the very beginning of The Last Jedi where Luke Skywalker throws his lightsaber away.

As a standalone piece, The Force Awakens is a clone of A New Hope (aka Star Wars, the 1977 film). And on first viewing I thought that was exactly what I wanted – especially after the disappointment of the prequels ten years previously. A return to what made Star Wars great was fantastic – but on looking at it again it’s clear that JJ Abrams crossed that invisible line which divides nostalgic throwbacks from outright copying. The strange thing is that two years previously, while working on Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams had managed to pay homage to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan without falling into that trap. If he could do it there, how did he manage to go too far here?

One final point, the concept of “Luke Skywalker is missing”, which The Force Awakens sets up and uses as the driving force for much of its narrative was, in retrospect, a bad decision. Killing off Han Solo meant that fans of the original films never got to see any on-screen interaction between Han, Luke, and Leia – the trio of characters at the core of those films. As a sequel to a trilogy of films so reliant upon those three characters, I have to say I feel that was a big mistake. Carrie Fisher’s untimely death in 2016, as well as the supposed death of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi also means that we got very little Luke and Leia interaction on screen either. While I, like most Star Wars fans, left the cinema thrilled with what The Force Awakens did, looking back at it there are a number of issues which I’d say make it a disappointment.

Its sequel, while divisive, was much better and tried to take the franchise to different places. It was, however, constrained to a great extent by the concept of Luke Skywalker being missing, isolating himself on this small island. From that foundation, there weren’t many places to take the character and the story, and that contributes to the sense that The Force Awakens didn’t set up a strong narrative for the trilogy. But again, that failure is on the head of the producers, and their decision to allow the story to be split up. If one team of writers had worked from day one to tell a single story across three films, instead of three one-shots, the trilogy would arguably have been much better. The Rise of Skywalker – set to conclude the “Skywalker saga” – is to be released soon, and that could go a long way toward redeeming the series if it’s good enough. We’ll have to wait and see.

Television series #1: Game of Thrones’ eighth season (2019)

Teaser poster for Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season.

This really boils down to the first three episodes of the season. After that it did improve, though the disappointment of what happened in those first episodes wasn’t wiped away by what came after.

In the premiere episode of Game of Thrones way back in 2011, the White Walkers are shown for the first time, and throughout the entire seven seasons leading to this point, the overall message of the show was that the politics and infighting may be interesting, but something far greater and more dangerous lies beyond The Wall and is coming – and it won’t care who’s in charge. In the background, behind all the wars and all the politics, slowly building up over seven seasons was The Night King and his army of the dead. Finally, at the end of season seven, he brings part of The Wall crashing down and is able to lead his army south – atop an undead dragon, no less.

As the eighth season begins, many of the main characters have arrived at Winterfell, and the first couple of episodes lead up to a climactic battle in the third episode – where The Night King finally unleashes his army and all of his firepower upon our heroes. This is the moment the entire show feels like it’s been building up to… and then, just like that, he’s dead at the end of it.

The Night King, built up over seven seasons as the greatest threat our characters have ever faced, doesn’t even last one episode south of The Wall and is killed in his first battle against any significant opposing army. To me, that’s an unforgivable storytelling mistake. Game of Thrones is rightly held up as one of the all-time great works of television, and is a seminal event in this decade’s storytelling, but this one moment, and the episodes preceding it when looking back in hindsight, threatens to undo all of that. It taints Game of Thrones with just how badly it was done.

I won’t go over all of it here – because I plan to do a full article or even a series on this topic – but Game of Thrones deserved a better final season than it got. Luckily, the remaining episodes were largely good and did go some way to saving the season, but even so it remains a disappointment and the way that The Night King didn’t even bring his “long night” for a single day, let alone years, is incredibly disappointing.

Television series #2: House of Cards’ sixth season (2018)

Robin Wright on a promo poster for the sixth season of House of Cards.

House of Cards – a remake of a British series of the same name from the 1990s – is an incredibly important television series. While not on par with something like Game of Thrones, perhaps, it is nevertheless the show that pioneered Netflix’s original programming, and that was the first significant show to premiere all the episodes of its season in a single day. Other Netflix shows owe their existence to House of Cards, and Netflix’s decision to diversify into original programming – as opposed to merely licensing other peoples’ properties – is what will allow it to survive as we enter the “streaming wars”.

In 2017, Kevin Spacey, who played devious mastermind Frank Underwood in House of Cards, was accused of a number of serious sexual offences. His response to the allegations was widely criticised, and as a result he became persona non grata overnight, even being digitally erased from the film All the Money in the World. As the sixth season of House of Cards was in early production, Netflix quickly announced he’d be dropped from that too, and production was restarted without him.

As happens in a lot of cases when a main character leaves a series, the way in which he was written out (he died off-screen) was ham-fisted and just poor overall. For a main character to just be dumped never sits well, but in a story so focused on a single character like House of Cards, where Frank Underwood is so central to everything that happened, there’s basically no point in carrying on without him.

At the end of season five, Frank had resigned as President amidst a scandal (of his own making), thus arguably completing the “rise and fall” narrative of House of Cards. With Spacey embroiled in scandal there was no way Netflix could continue to work with him, so the decision should have been to pull the plug and end the series. The sixth season was just an unnecessary disappointment. This isn’t, by the way, a criticism of Robin Wright, who did an admirable job stepping into the role of protagonist/anti-hero that Spacey had occupied. It’s simply the fact that the series was never her character’s story, and jettisoning its main lead while production was underway and a deadline was coming up meant that the sixth season had to be rapidly adjusted to fit the new circumstances. And unfortunately, it came up short.

Television series #3: The Walking Dead (2010-Present)

Promo poster for The Walking Dead featuring Andrew Lincoln.

Even speaking as someone who isn’t a huge fan of horror, the first couple of seasons of AMC’s zombie show were decent. Playing more on the post-apocalyptic setting than the zombies themselves, the earlier episodes of The Walking Dead had some great character moments and performances by the cast. But as time has passed, the series has completely run out of ideas.

Rick Grimes and his ever-changing group of survivors seem to stumble from bad situation to bad situation, and in recent years all of those bad situations have been essentially the same thing. When the zombies lost their fear factor a couple of seasons in, writers began looking for new threats for the group to deal with. And since then, every season has followed basically the same pattern – Rick and his group arrive in an area, other human survivors decide they don’t like Rick and his group, the two groups fight, and then that’s it. Roll on the next group of human survivors with an inexplicable and poorly-written anti-Rick agenda. The Governor came first, so he gets somewhat of a pass. But after him came the Terminus cannibals, then Negan, and it’s just become so boring and repetitive that I tuned out.

Fear The Walking Dead – a spin-off of the main show – is actually much better. It’s taken a look at the immediate aftermath of the zombie virus in a way that The Walking Dead didn’t, and thus its post-apocalyptic setting, while the same as that featured in the main series, feels like it has more of a foundation to build upon.

Any villain or enemy can be overused or overexposed. And when they are, when the protagonists have defeated them so many times, they lose their fear factor. And even though The Walking Dead was up there with Game of Thrones in pioneering the “disposable” cast (i.e. main cast members could be killed off at any time and you couldn’t be sure who’d survive), by this point in the show as it passes its tenth season, the vast majority of the original cast have gone, and the few survivors who are left from earlier seasons don’t feel like they’re in danger. Add to that that the new characters are less interesting and less well-known to the audience and the show has become boring. Some series have a natural lifespan – and The Walking Dead should’ve ended after perhaps four seasons or so.

Television series #4: Doctor Who (2005-Present)

Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman on a promo poster for Doctor Who.

There have been some great Doctor Who stories this decade – The Day of the Doctor is brilliant, for example. But unfortunately, after Matt Smith left the role in the 2013 Christmas Special, things went downhill fast.

Peter Capaldi is exactly how I’d imagine The Doctor if someone just described the character to me. He has a certain quality, perhaps best described as “gravitas” or “weight”, allowing him to seamlessly and successfully step into the role of this ancient, time-travelling alien. Which is something that previous Doctor Who actors of the relaunched series arguably lacked.

Sadly, though, Capaldi just had nothing to work with. For the entire three seasons he was in the role, the writing and stories were just bad. They started bad and even managed to get worse over time, as the team being the series simply ran out of ideas. Modern Doctor Who has suffered from an overuse of three key villains – the Daleks most notably, but also the Cybermen and Weeping Angels. All of these adversaries were great in their initial appearances in 2005, 2006, and even up to the end of the last decade. But by the time Peter Capaldi took over they were played out. And the stories featuring new opponents for The Doctor simply didn’t get off the ground.

Clara, who had been the companion to the previous Doctor, was written out of the show in a bad way, and Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones fame is introduced as an incredibly annoying immortal character. The only decent companion of this era, Bill (played by Pearl Mackie) only lasted a single season and was treated as a complete afterthought in most of her stories – and also came to a stupidly annoying end.

I struggled on through Capaldi’s reign as The Doctor, waiting for the writing to improve so the show could finally shine, but unfortunately it never happened, and his departure was thus the last time I bothered watching. Doctor Who needs a root-and-branch overhaul, and since that seems impossible right now, it would be better to put it back on hiatus for a while. Perhaps we can come back to it in a few years when someone has a genuinely good idea for its revival.

Video game #1: Fallout 76 (2018)

Fallout 76 box art.

What’s at the core of a great story? Whether we’re talking about a film, a television series, or a video game, characters are at the heart of any story. And the Fallout series, from its inception in the 1990s through the three more recent titles, have been story-focused games. So why, then, did Bethesda choose to release Fallout 76 – an online game where there are no non-player characters?

Forget about the bugs for a moment. Fallout 76 was riddled with glitches and graphical errors, but if, underneath all of that, there had been a story worth telling, a lot of that could have been and would have been forgiven. But there wasn’t, and the fact that Fallout 76 is essentially a big, empty world has meant that the issues which are present seem all the more egregious. I’m honestly not sure what the point of this game was. Aside from walking around to look at the decently pretty – if somewhat last-gen – environment, and fighting off a few monsters, there’s literally nothing to do.

I’m not a multiplayer gamer; I don’t enjoy playing online with strangers. But I fully understand that a lot of people do, and that this game was aimed at them. But even if that was the objective, it’s completely failed. The lack of story meant that even players who teamed up to tackle Fallout 76‘s environment together would be bored pretty quickly, and the shoddy gunplay – which Fallout’s signature VATS system concealed so well in Fallout 3, New Vegas, and Fallout 4 – means that it’s worthless as a multiplayer player-versus-player shooter like Call of Duty. So honestly, what was the point of this game? It’s been nothing but a massive PR own goal from Bethesda, and their damaged brand will take a long time to recover. If their next title isn’t absolutely fantastic, they’ll be in a mess of trouble.

Video game #2: Mass Effect 3 (2012)

Female of Commander Shepard on the alternate box art for Mass Effect 3.

I picked Mass Effect 2 for my game of the decade – spoiler warning for that list. But its sequel struggled to conclude the trilogy in a satisfactory way. Mass Effect 3 told what should’ve been the most interesting part of the story. After Shepard is introduced to the idea of The Reapers – space-dwelling robot aliens who want to rid the galaxy of all intelligent life – in the first game, and the second game uncovers another part of their plan, this game features the actual war against The Reapers – and players have to fight battles and bring the galaxy together to defeat them.

On paper, it sounds like the best part. But, coming out only two years after Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3 was rushed. Gameplay remains solid, though not notably improved from its predecessor, and there are none of the bugs and graphical issues which would plague Mass Effect: Andromeda. But as the story ramps up, it’s clear that developers Bioware simply ran out of time to pull everything together.

It isn’t just the “pick a colour” ending – though that is a significant disappointment in itself – but the fact that choices made throughout the game, and indeed in the previous two games, not only don’t matter but aren’t even given lip service as Mass Effect 3 enters its final climactic fight.

To give an example, if players have followed a specific path across all three titles, it’s possible to save both the Geth species and the Quarian species when it seems like it should only be possible to save one or the other. This is an incredible moment in the game, and it feels like having both powerful fleets on your side will make a difference when you reach Earth – where The Reapers have massed their forces. But it doesn’t – literally the only difference comes in the cut-scene immediately after arriving at Earth, where the different fleets check in to confirm they’ve all arrived. Two seconds of dialogue reveals that you have both the Geth and Quarians on your side… then that’s it. And there are dozens of other instances throughout the final third of the game where an extra few months of development time would’ve allowed for a much more satisfying way of recognising the player’s choices.

In a series where players were promised that “every choice matters”, it turned out by the end of Mass Effect 3 that that simply wasn’t the case. And while the game is solid overall, it’s a poor relation to its predecessor.

Video game #3: Shenmue III (2019)

Ryo Hazuki and Shenua on Shenmue III‘s box art.

I’ve already written an article detailing at length my problems with Shenmue III, but suffice to say it’s absolutely one of the biggest let-downs for me personally.

As a big fan of the first two Shenmue games, back when I had a Dreamcast, I was absolutely thrilled to hear that series creator Yu Suzuki had managed to buy the rights to the legendary series with a view to finally making a sequel. Eighteen years have passed since I left protagonist Ryo in a cave in China, and I was really looking forward to learning what happened next after that cliffhanger, as well as finally seeing the story brought to an end.

But Shenmue III doesn’t bring the story to an end – thanks to an absolutely inexplicable decision not to make cuts to the bloated story of the series. Yu Suzuki genuinely thinks he can get lightning to strike twice and that he’ll somehow get the money together to make Shenmue IV – and presumably V and VI as well? Fat chance.

His studio had been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by a dedicated group of fans to conclude the story, and they blew it. The Shenmue series was as dead as it was possible to be, and Sega was only willing to part with the rights because they knew that it would never make them any money. As great as Shenmue was, it was a colossal failure, and Shenmue II managed to retain less than 10% of its fans from the first game, resulting in a massive drop in sales from one title to the next. By every conceivable metric, the games failed. And despite that, a small, vocal group of fans managed to stump up over $7,000,000 – some individuals contributing thousands of dollars.

I don’t claim to speak for all of them, but the one thing I expected from Shenmue III – in fact, the only thing I expected from it – is that it would finally complete the story. And if Yu Suzuki couldn’t find a way to cut it down to fit into one game, someone needed to be brought in to swing that axe and make those cuts. As a result of this, I haven’t even bought the game. And I won’t, because what’s the point? Get drawn back into that world, only to be left on another unresolved cliffhanger? No thank you.

So that’s it. A few titles across entertainment which I found to be disappointing or underwhelming this decade. If your favourite is on the list, well I’m sorry. But we all have our own preferences and tastes. These are just my opinions, and are wholly subjective.

The 2010s have, overall, been a wonderful decade for entertainment. TV shows are better than ever, often with cinema-quality acting and visuals, video games continue to get bigger and better, and at the box office there have been some incredible films. But there are always going to be misses to go along with the hits, and this list just runs through a few that didn’t work – at least for me.

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

Obligatory end-of-the-decade list #3

As the decade draws to a close, I’ve taken a look back at some of my favourite television series and films of the 2010s. Now it’s the turn of video games, and it’s been a good decade for the medium overall.

I used to work in the games industry, writing marketing blurb and website content for a large games company, so I might look at things slightly differently than the average gamer. I’ve also found that, due to a combination of my health worsening and just getting older, my ability and desire to sit down and play games isn’t the same as it used to be ten years ago. As a result, there are some titles which people hold up as being absolutely fantastic that I just haven’t played this decade – including games like Red Dead Redemption II, The Witcher 3, and God of War. That they aren’t included on this list doesn’t mean they aren’t great games, it’s simply that they aren’t titles I have any personal experience with.

With the rise of on-demand streaming for films and television, it’s safe to say that in most cases, most people can watch any film or TV series that they want to. There are even, shall we say, ways to get around pesky restrictions for those who sail the high seas. Ahoy, mateys. So in that sense, TV and film is one platform that everyone with a screen can access. Not so for games, where different titles are released on different systems – some being exclusive to just one. A person’s preference for games is therefore going to be tied to the platform they use to play and the titles that system has available. My primary gaming machine is PC, but I’ve been lucky this decade to play on a variety of others.

Let’s look back briefly at the systems we’ve seen this decade. Obviously PC has been there for the whole decade, chugging away in the background. In 2010, the main consoles that were available were the Wii, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. These consoles were into the latter half of their life by this point, having been released in 2005 and 2006. In 2012, Nintendo launched the Wii U, which didn’t sell particularly well, and in 2013 Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were released. Following the failure of the Wii U, the Switch came out in 2017, and these three consoles are the primary ones in use today. The 2010s also saw the mass adoption of smartphones, which are a legitimate gaming platform in themselves, and finally just a few weeks ago, Google jumped into the gaming market with its streaming service called Stadia. There were also a couple of handhelds, the Nintendo 3DS and the PlayStation Vita.

As I said for the previous lists I’ve made, everything here is wholly subjective. These aren’t games I’m saying are “objectively the best”, they’re simply the titles I personally found to be the most interesting, entertaining, or memorable over the last ten years. And aside from my number one pick, which is my favourite game of the decade, the rest of the list could really be in almost any order. So with that out of the way, let’s jump in.

Spoiler Warning: There may be spoilers ahead for the story-focused titles on this list. If you don’t want to see spoilers for a game you haven’t yet played, feel free to skip that entry and move on to the next.

Number 10: Minecraft (Multiplatform, 2011)

Promo artwork for Minecraft.

I came to Minecraft quite early in its life, when it was still in beta. I was with a girlfriend at the time who had got into it through watching YouTube videos of playthroughs and wanted me to try it out. The early versions of the game lacked a lot of features that are available currently. When I first played, there was no Creative Mode option, no villager NPCs, no End portal, and a lot of other elements. But it was nevertheless a fun game, and one that was great to play together with other people.

Minecraft took me by surprise by blowing up the way it did. I didn’t expect this scruffy little game, with its incredibly outdated pixel graphics and that seemed to be all about building mud huts and chopping trees, to become a global gaming phenomenon. Shows what I know, eh?

The core appeal of Minecraft is that in its randomly-generated world, players can basically do anything they want. People have done everything from using Creative Mode to make incredibly detailed artwork to redstone-powered in-game computer systems which actually work. Schools have even started using Minecraft as an educational tool, teaching kids how to interact with and use computers. And Minecraft is everywhere, on every platform and system from consoles to phones to PC and even the Raspberry Pi mini computer. And it’s picked up a worldwide fanbase that must number in the hundreds of millions.

The combination of exploration, collecting resources, building, and fighting monsters has been incredibly alluring, and while Minecraft may seem simple on the surface, there’s so much to do that it’s easy to lose many, many hours in its simple, pixelated world. I’ve had great fun taking an empty world and building castles, digging huge caverns and tunnels, travelling to different realms, and fighting off some of Minecraft’s iconic creatures. And compared to a lot of players, I’ve barely scratched the surface.

The PC version of Minecraft has also benefited from a very active modding community, with some incredible mods that completely change the game. One such mod is even credited (at least by some people) with spawning the battle royale genre that has taken the gaming world by storm in the last three or four years.

All in all, Minecraft is a rare, genre-defining title and its success has been imitated by many other games – so much so that “Minecraft clone” is a legitimate game genre in itself at this point – but never bettered. That it still has such an active playerbase over eight years after its official release is testament to its place in the history of gaming.

Number 9: The FIFA series (Multiplatform, annual releases)

Promotional screenshot for FIFA 18.

In 2010, I picked up the World Cup edition of FIFA. I’d played several FIFA titles in the 1990s – FIFA ’97 on PC, World Cup ’98 and FIFA 99 on the Nintendo 64 – but I hadn’t touched the franchise since the turn of the millennium. It had changed hugely in that time – not just graphically, but the AI too.

Though it’s probably fair to say that FIFA games this decade haven’t made such groundbreaking changes as they did in the previous one, for me as someone coming back after such a long hiatus, I was absolutely struck by how much better World Cup 2010 was than the titles I remembered from years prior. While FIFA games absolutely can be enjoyed in single-player, where I had the most fun was playing against friends one-on-one.

I’m not a big online gamer, but if I have two control pads and someone to play with on the couch, FIFA is definitely one of my go-to series for a fun time – assuming, of course, that the other person is a football fan. For non-fans, there’s obviously much less enjoyment to be had.

The most recent edition of FIFA I played was FIFA 18, which has some minor improvements over games earlier in the decade, but nothing that I’d say that majorly changed the game experience. What I find the most fun isn’t playing as my favourite team with my favourite players, but picking a less-known team in a different league, building a team of players, and challenging for the league title or a cup. FIFA is a surprisingly adaptable series in that respect – there are a lot of options and ways to play. Depending on how long or short you want matches to be, and how much input you want to have in the management of your team, you can spend either hours in the backroom playing with different tactical choices and player options, or just blitz through a campaign of short matches all the way to the end of the season and the cup final. There’s something for everyone – or at least, for every football fan.

There are some absolutely legitimate criticisms of the FIFA series for the way it charges players for random in-game content in its Ultimate Team mode, and the way that recent iterations of the game – especially on platforms like Nintendo Switch – haven’t really brought any new gameplay to the table for a full-priced title, and I don’t want to ignore those. But for me personally, as someone who doesn’t play online and doesn’t buy in-game items, FIFA is a lot of fun and offers a lot of content for people who enjoy football. And the massive improvements made since I first played it in the 1990s are still impressive, even if the pace and scale of gameplay and graphical improvements has fallen away in recent years.

Number 8: Shenmue I & II (PC and PlayStation 4, 2018)

Ryo Hazuki (left) faces down an opponent in this promo screenshot from Shenmue I & II.

I was a huge Shenmue fan when I had a Dreamcast, so when this remaster was announced I was incredibly excited to jump back into that world. It’s a little bit of a stretch to call this a remaster, though, as while the game is upscaled to fit modern widescreen displays, and there were some minor changes to controls to better suit modern control pads, the games are essentially identical to their respective 1999 and 2001 releases – including, so I hear, some of the same bugs and glitches as were present two decades ago. Though I did encounter a few bugs in my playthrough (the same cutscene repeating, getting stuck in the environment, etc.) I can’t say for sure whether those are bugs which were carried over from the original versions or not.

Though Shenmue I & II haven’t really aged all that well from a gameplay perspective, it was absolutely a nostalgic treat to be able to replay these classic games I enjoyed years ago. And the first game in particular was a landmark in the history of gaming – for me personally as well as the industry. Prior to playing Shenmue, most of my gaming experiences had been in flat, 2D worlds. The few 3D titles I’d seen or played had been games like Super Mario 64 – which is a great game in its own right, but not what you’d call cinematic. Shenmue completely changed the way I viewed games; no longer just digital toys, they could tell stories that would be just as at home on television or in the cinema. I love that about games, and my favourite titles ever since have been ones that told great, immersive stories. The chance to recapture some of the way that felt was too tempting to pass up, so I couldn’t wait to replay Shenmue.

Shenmue I & II was a return to a game world I hadn’t visited since the early 2000s when I traded in my Dreamcast for an Xbox when that console failed, and as a piece of nostalgia, getting to enjoy these titles again was wonderful. Shenmue is a series all about telling one story, and the unique world it created – with characters and businesses operating on a day-night schedule, variable weather conditions, and the freedom to ditch the main quest and just explore the environment or play games in the arcade – was groundbreaking for its time and still something special today.

In a post earlier this month, I wrote how I was very disappointed that Shenmue III won’t be completing Ryo’s story, despite having what is almost certainly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do so. I still haven’t bought that game, and I’m not sure whether I want to until I know whether there will be a sequel – or any other conclusion to the story. But that disappointment hasn’t detracted (much) from my enjoyment of this rerelease of the first two titles.

Number 7: Mario Kart 7 (Nintendo 3DS, 2011) & Mario Kart 8 (Wii U, 2014; Switch, 2017)

Being able to race underwater was new in Mario Kart 7.

Ever since I played Super Mario Kart on the SNES in the mid-1990s I’ve been a fan of Nintendo’s fun and silly racing series. Both of the main entries this decade – 2011’s Mario Kart 7 and 2014’s Mario Kart 8 – have been absolutely amazing. The less said about Nintendo’s money-grabbing mobile version the better, though. I got to play Mario Kart 8 months before release at a press event, and I was in awe of the game’s hugely improved graphics. For a while it seemed like the Wii U tanking would mean fewer people would get to play this great entry in the series, but Nintendo repackaged the game for Switch in 2017 – where I’m not ashamed to say I bought it for the second time.

A racing sim this ain’t, so leave your $500 sim cockpit at home, and pick up a controller (or a pair of Switch joy-cons) because Mario Kart is pure arcade racing goodness. When I was working in a big office, a group of colleagues and I would regularly play Mario Kart 7 via the Nintendo 3DS’ Download Play feature, and those races could get very competitive! Mario Kart 8 is also a great multiplayer game, and on one occasion I had a birthday tournament with some friends. As a split-screen game, it’s absolutely perfect. Its simple controls mean anyone can jump in and play, with races being easily accessible to a newcomer – even someone new to gaming.

My favourite character is Dry Bones – the skeleton version of Koopa Troopa – so I was pleased to see him (or her, I suppose) return for the Switch version of Mario Kart 8. It’s always nice to be able to play as your favourite – and I’d been playing as Dry Bones since Mario Kart Wii. The expanded roster of characters this time around should give players plenty of choice, as will the variety of customisation options for karts. Putting together the best kart – with a combination of body, wheels, and glider – to win races has become an important strategic element of the game!

At the end of the day, Mario Kart 7 and Mario Kart 8 are just good, solid fun. With Nintendo’s typical high quality, these really are games anyone of any age can have a fantastic time with. Whether you want to kill five minutes with a single race, or spend hours trying to unlock all the characters and vehicle options, there’s something for everyone to do in this fun, casual title.

Number 6: The Last Of Us (PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, 2013)

Ellie and Joel in an atmospheric piece of promotional artwork for The Last Of Us.

The Last Of Us was the PlayStation 3’s swansong – one of its final titles that really showed off what the system was capable of. In 2013 the games industry was gearing up for new consoles, but famed studio Naughty Dog had one last hurrah for the departing generation, and released what is arguably the PlayStation 3’s finest game.

Set in a post-apocalyptic environment where most of humanity has fallen victim to a fungal infection that turns people into zombies, The Last Of Us is really a character-driven story, a road trip game where main characters Joel and Ellie cross a hauntingly beautiful rendition of an overgrown, largely deserted United States. There’s a variety of enviroments, from crumbling cities to open areas of countryside, and to call the world “atmospheric” wouldn’t do it justice.

Joel is the game’s main protagonist, and while players get a turn playing as Ellie, The Last Of Us is really Joel’s story. The ending is gut-wrenching, and whether or not you agree with Joel’s decision to save Ellie’s life – and in so doing, rob humanity of the chance to cure the cordyceps disease – it’s an incredibly powerful ending. I’m not sure whether the game really needs a sequel; you can’t usually get lighting to strike twice. But regardless, a sequel is due out next year and I’ll be interested – if cautiously so – to see where it takes these incredible characters.

The best post-apocalyptic fiction, whether in the format of a game, book, film, or television series, takes relatable, down-to-earth characters and throws impossibly difficult situations at them. For me, The Last Of Us is right up there with films like I Am Legend and TV shows like The Last Ship as a standout piece of work in the post-apocalyptic genre. By focusing so much on two characters, their journey, and their growth, the game takes everything great about storytelling and makes it an interactive experience. The best games, at least in my opinion, are the ones that manage to do this. And The Last Of Us is absolutely among the best games of the decade for that very reason.

Number 5: Banished (PC, 2014)

An example of a town players can build in this Banished promo screenshot.

Banished is a complicated town-building and management game. Players take control of a group of citizens who are starting a new life after being banished from their society. Aside from planning and building the town, it’s important to manage resources like food, clothing, firewood, tools, medicine, and citizens’ happiness, and getting the balance right between all of these elements is incredibly tricky to master even after hours of trial and error.

The amazing thing about Banished, considering how much there is to do, is that it was all created and programmed by one person. Every aspect of the game was designed and put together by just one guy, and that’s just incredible to me. There have occasionally been other indie titles with just one creator, but none have come close to being on par with Banished. This game would still have made this list even if it had been the work of a team of developers or a whole studio, but considering only one person worked on it, I’m speechless, truly.

The world that players’ citizens inhabit is randomly generated each time, meaning no two towns will be alike. While it’s relatively easy to get started, scavenging available above-ground resources, in order to maintain a town that will be viable for 50+ years of in-game time, it’s important to put sustainability at the heart of playing the game. Forests can be replanted, but if players clear the map from end to end it’s easy to run out of other resources like iron or stone. And striking the right balance to keep everyone in town fed, clothed, equipped, healthy, and happy is a task that is difficult to get the hang of, and one that varies with each map and each playthrough, giving Banished almost unlimited replayability for people who really get into it.

Number 4: Super Mario Odyssey (Switch, 2017)

Cappy and Mario in New Donk City in a promo image for Super Mario Odyssey.

For a few years in the 2010s, it seemed as though Nintendo was only interested in 2D Mario games, titles which imitated the character’s NES and SNES heyday but with up-to-date graphics. Those 2D platformers were okay, but Super Mario Odyssey is on a whole other level.

Playing out like a massively expanded version of classic 3D platformer Super Mario 64 – complete with a version of that game’s iconic castle – Odyssey takes Mario on an incredible journey all across the Mushroom Kingdom and beyond. There’s plenty of nostalgia here for returning fans, including throwbacks to previous titles in the franchise, but there’s also loads to do for new players, and you don’t have to be a Mario fan to have an amazing experience.

For what is I believe the first time, it’s possible to customise Mario’s outfit. This simple change alone provides tons of fun, and an additional incentive to collect all the hidden coins throughout Odyssey‘s expansive levels. I’m a big fan of character outfits and customisation, and being able to style Mario in such a wide range of outfits was great fun.

There’s a range of different environments in Odyssey, with no two levels being alike. From a cityscape to a dark forest all the way to the moon, there’s a lot to see and do. The game revolves around collecting moons – which replace the power stars from Mario 64 – and while a couple of hundred is enough to unlock all the levels and defeat Bowser, there are literally hundreds more available. 100% completion of the game is possible, but difficult – and requires a heck of a lot of time. This is a title to come back to over and over, and an undoubted classic of the genre and the generation.

Number 3: Grand Theft Auto V (Multiplatform, 2013)

Promo artwork for Grand Theft Auto V featuring protagonists Michael, Franklin, and Trevor.

For a lot of people, Grand Theft Auto V will be the game of the decade, and understandably so. Rockstar’s most recent entry into its action/crime franchise is a juggernaut – regularly appearing in top ten sales charts and on Steam as one of the most played games even six years after its initial release.

The main reason Grand Theft Auto V has been so successful is its online mode – though as a predominantly single-player gamer this isn’t a mode I’m familiar with. Instead, what I like about this game is its single-player campaign. The characters are great to interact with, and watching them team up and work together is more rewarding because players get to spend time with each of them. In previous Grand Theft Auto titles, players took control of a single protagonist. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, Grand Theft Auto V‘s approach, having multiple protagonists, has arguably led to more immersion and the feeling that missions have higher stakes. Watching two or three characters you’ve played as interacting with each other is a very different experience than watching a sole protagonist interact with NPCs. There’s a personal connection that exists between player and character – one which Grand Theft Auto V uses to great effect.

While the story is a fun, over-the-top parody of America as it was in the early 2010s, where Grand Theft Auto V really shines is in letting players loose in a huge open world. Half of the fun of any Grand Theft Auto title is in taking time off from story missions and roaming around, blasting the soundtrack from the radio of your stolen car, and just soaking up the atmosphere of the world that has been painstakingly created. And that’s just as true here as it was in Grand Theft Auto III, which was the first title in the series I played back on the original Xbox, or in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which first featured the city of Los Santos.

Los Santos is a parody of Los Angeles, and the city is created in absolutely amazing detail. Even more than six years after release, this open world’s scale is impressive and it looks great to boot. There’s a lot to do even when not taking part in a mission, far too many side activities to list here, and it’s quite easy to see how people have sunk thousands of hours into this game. Grand Theft Auto V is a title which has lasted from the end of the last console generation right through the current one, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest to see it ported to next year’s PlayStation 5 and next-gen Xbox. How will Rockstar possibly be able to follow its success? I wrote a post about that.

Number 2: Civilization VI (PC, 2016)

Promo screenshot of Civilization VI.

Civilization VI might be the game I’ve spent the most time with this decade. It’s certainly my most-played game of the last three years, that’s for sure. It’s a game that hooks you in and keeps you coming back for more.

My first experiences with PC strategy games back in the 1990s were real-time strategy games like Age of Empires and Command and Conquer. Early games in the Civilization franchise didn’t really appeal to me because they were slower and, in my opinion at the time, less exciting as a result. So when Civilization VI came out in 2016, I wasn’t particularly interested at first. But after reading some very positive reviews online I decided to give it a try – and I’m so glad I did.

Playing out like a digital board game rather than a video game, Civilization VI lets you build cities, colonise the world, and defeat your opponents through a variety of victory conditions: cultural, domination, religious, scientific, or simply by having the highest score at the end of an arbitrary time limit or turn limit. Each of these victory conditions requires a different play style to achieve, and which one seems best to pursue can change depending on the outcome of wars and diplomacy with other factions in the game.

Despite some glitches here and there, including one introduced by an update at one point, the AI in the game is very good and plays to win. On harder difficulty settings, you’re in for a real fight! There are also some great custom scenarios – shorter games with different factions and specific victory conditions. I also had great fun trying to unlock various Steam achievements – some of which required oddly specific circumstances like capturing an oil well in the final turn of a game, or building districts in a city in a specific pattern. Achieving some of the more obscure ones – especially ones that hardly anyone else had – became a fun game in itself for me.

The game takes players from the stone age through to the near future (as of the most recent expansion pack) and various technologies can be unlocked along the way, improving your cities, units, and abilities. There are plenty of civilisations to choose from, with the number almost doubling thanks to several expansion packs. Unfortunately, the price for the game plus all its current expansions can be a bit steep – but it is on sale on Steam from time to time, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for those sales to get the game at a discount.

Civilization VI converted me from a real-time strategy fan to someone who appreciates a slower turn-based game. And I’ve spent hundreds of hours in this game, customising everything I could (I like to give my cities names) and having a whale of a time. The randomly-generated maps, and the fact that there are far too many civilisations and leaders to play against in a single match, means that Civilization VI has huge replayability potential once you get stuck in. And I really, really did get stuck in for a while there.

Honourable Mentions:

For every title on the list above, there was at least one other I could’ve picked. It really has been a great decade for games, and with more people than ever now owning a console and playing games regularly, things can only get better as the 2020s roll around. Just before I crown my favourite game of the decade, here are a few titles which almost made this list (and one bonus subscription service – let’s look at that first!)

Xbox GamePass (Xbox One and PC, 2017) – GamePass aims to be the “Netflix of video games”, and that’s exactly what it is. A huge number of titles can be played for a single subscription fee, and I’d absolutely recommend it to anyone on a budget. An Xbox One S with a GamePass subscription (and an internet connection) is enough to get you stuck into this generation’s games without spending a huge amount of money up front.

Star Trek Online (PC, 2010; Xbox One and PlayStation 4, 2016) – It wouldn’t be one of my lists without a Star Trek title, and Star Trek Online is a lot of fun – provided you can tolerate playing with thousands of other people. I can’t, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognise it’s a good game.
Fortnite (Multiplatform, 2017) – As a title that has brought millions of new people into the hobby, and changed the way companies approach charging for games, Fortnite is a landmark in this decade’s gaming landscape.
Plague Inc. (iOS and Android, 2012) – I didn’t expect to find a mobile game so genuinely different and interesting, but this fun strategy title – in which you play as a virus trying to wipe out humankind – is just that.
Victoria II (PC, 2010) – A massively in-depth grand strategy game that must take years to master, set during the 19th Century. Notable for allowing players to play as literally any country in the world – and expand to colonise and conquer it.
Planet Coaster (PC, 2016) – A spiritual successor to the classic Rollercoaster Tycoon series, this surprisingly detailed theme park builder is difficult, but a ton of fun.
Meow Motors (Multiplatform, 2018) – It’s basically Mario Kart with cats. What’s not to love about that?
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One, 2019) – I can’t rank this game because I haven’t been able to play it yet, but everything I’ve read sounds amazing and I can’t wait to jump back in to a galaxy far, far away.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Multiplatform, 2011) – I’d been an Elder Scrolls fan since Morrowind, and Skyrim did not disappoint – a massive open world, tons of NPCs, several factions, and hundreds of missions and quests to get stuck into.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360, 2011) – Another franchise I’d long been a fan of, Human Revolution is a well-built prequel with fun gunplay and interesting ways to genetically and technologically modify your human character.
Halo: Reach (Xbox 360, 2010; Xbox One and PC, 2019) – It’s funny to be ending the decade replaying a game from the very start, but Halo: Reach is a fantastic story-driven FPS and was original developer Bungie’s final entry in the Halo series.

Number 1: Mass Effect 2 (PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, 2010)

Jacob, Tali, and Commander Shepard in a promo screenshot for Mass Effect 2.

What can I say about Mass Effect 2 other than “wow”? This game’s incredible story of a no-hope mission to stop nefarious aliens from abducting human colonies is without equal in gaming, and would be at home in any big budget television series or film franchise.

I came late to the Mass Effect party, only playing the first game in the series several years after its 2007 release. I must confess that I wasn’t impressed at first. Mass Effect 1 struck me as a poor rip-off of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic; a generic clone of Star Wars from a studio that didn’t have the license any more. But after running out of things to play, I gave the first Mass Effect 1 a second chance, and second time around it hooked me into its world. By then, Mass Effect 2 was due for release and I picked up a copy on launch day. To say I was blown away would be an understatement – the game is such a massive improvement on its predecessor.

Gameplay is fantastic, a cover-based third-person shooter with a few different weapons to choose from and a variety of powers, including technological and the fantasy-based biotics (which I felt on my initial look at Mass Effect 1 was a poor clone of the Force from Star Wars). There are numerous planets to explore, and players get their own ship to command. Planets and missions don’t have to be done in the same order every time, giving some variety to additional playthroughs.

But what really shines in Mass Effect 2 are the characters and the story. Essentially, Mass Effect 2 is a team-up story: players must recruit the best team possible for an incredibly dangerous mission into uncharted space. Each team member needs to be recruited, then have their loyalty to you and the cause cemented by completing an additional optional mission, usually to resolve part of their backstory. Once these missions are complete, and the Normandy (the player’s ship) has been suitably upgraded, it’s time to take the fight to the evil Collectors (revealed to be pawns of the series’ main antagonists the Reapers).

The final mission of the game – dubbed the “suicide mission” – is one of the most intense sequences I’ve played in any game. The characters we’ve spent so long with can die, permanently, if the mission doesn’t go exactly right. First-time players will probably need a walkthrough to complete this final mission successfully. It’s an incredibly powerful story, with consequences for the final part of the trilogy (which came out two years later).

Mass Effect 2 also included some great expansion packs, adding additional story content which paved the way for Mass Effect 3 nicely. These expansions were well worth the money, and added hours of extra gameplay to what was already not a short game.

Being able to play the game as a nice guy or evil badass, as well as deciding who to recruit, whether to bother with their loyalty missions, and whether to try to keep everyone alive or make sacrifices in the endgame all combine to make Mass Effect 2 a game well worth revisiting. I must’ve played all the way through half a dozen times. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a long game!

The Mass Effect series was also unique, at least at the time, for letting players choose to play as a male or female Commander Shepard. Both options were fully-voiced, meaning there’s even more reason to come back to the game after beating it the first time.

Mass Effect worked so well as a trilogy, despite its controversial and somewhat lazy ending, but the standout part has to be Mass Effect 2. It built on the universe its predecessor created, streamlining the gameplay to really shine a spotlight on its amazing story. Mass Effect 3 would round out the trilogy, and unfortunately since then, the franchise hasn’t been able to recapture the magic of its second instalment. This is definitely a series worthy of a next-gen remaster, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see that some time in the 2020s.

When it came to choosing one title to top this list, Mass Effect 2 was the first one that came to mind. And when I stacked it up against other games, even ones I’d played a great deal more of, Mass Effect 2‘s amazing story won out, and I’m happy to crown it my game of the decade.

So that’s it. Those are the games I personally had the most fun with over the last ten years. If your favourites didn’t make the list, please keep in mind that there are a lot of recent games that, despite wanting to, I just haven’t got around to playing yet. And as I said at the start, this whole thing is entirely subjective. It’s been a wonderful decade for games, one which has seen the medium grow beyond all recognition. Thanks to the almost universal adoption of smartphones, and the ease of smartphone gaming, millions of people who wouldn’t have ever called themselves “gamers” are getting into the hobby for the first time. And blockbuster titles like Minecraft and Fortnite have done wonders for the industry.

There have been some drawbacks and issues – loot boxes and random in-game monetisation is, despite what companies claim, akin to gambling, and I fear that some young people are going to have issues as a result of that in future. We need to keep a weather eye on some of these companies, and be unafraid to call them out when they misbehave.

But overall, the 2010s will be remembered as a decade which, though it didn’t see such a radical improvement in graphics or available computing power as the 1990s or 2000s, took gaming as a medium forward, pushing the boundaries and finally breaking into the mainstream as a legitimate entertainment form. Gaming is no longer looked down on by the majority as a nerdy hobby for sweaty teenagers. More and more people have become gamers themselves, and the decade has rewarded them with some absolutely incredible titles, both in terms of single-player story experiences and online multiplayer titles.

All of the games listed above are the copyright of their respective developers and publishers. All screenshots and promotional artwork were taken from IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Obligatory end-of-the-decade list #2

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for all of the shows mentioned on this list. If you haven’t seen one, or haven’t seen up to the most recent season, feel free to skip ahead to the next entry.

In this second part of my series looking back at some of the entertainment highlights of the 2010s, I’ll be taking a look at television series. A couple of these may have premiered in the 2000s, but the criteria here was that they had to have new episodes (not re-runs) broadcast sometime between January 2010 and December 2019. So now you know not to complain that “technically this series aired in 2009”.

As is the case in cinema, television series this decade have benefited greatly from a huge increase in the quality and availability of CGI and other special effects. The result is that for a series with a sufficiently high budget, visuals and effects bordering on (and in some cases surpassing) the big screen have been possible. Additional technological changes like the availability of drones have meant that even low-budget shows have been able to get dramatic, sweeping aerial shots, and the move from standard definition (480p) to high definition (720p or 1080p) as well as the move from DVD to Blu-Ray has meant the visual quality of television series this decade is higher than ever. And that’s great, because television screens have been getting larger and larger. A few shows are even available in 4K resolution (2160p), pushing visuals even further.

The decade has also seen a major shift away from broadcast television channels to online on-demand streaming. Netflix and Amazon Prime end the decade in pole position in this new market. It’s funny to think that at the beginning of the decade I was still buying DVDs and watching them on a 4:3 CRT television. Going back to that setup today, after experiencing the convenience of Netflix and 4K visuals, would be one heck of a downgrade.

As more and more companies have tried to capture for themselves a piece of the streaming market, television budgets have skyrocketed. The result has been an exceptional decade for television storytelling. Some series have focused on telling a single story over multiple episodes and seasons, and this serialised format has become increasingly popular, largely replacing episodic television (or the “monster-of-the-week” format) across many genres. Personally, while I like some serialised shows and the format can suit some stories, I miss being able to jump into any random episode of a show I enjoy without having to remember everything that happened that season – or several seasons prior. But that’s really just a matter of personal taste.

Speaking of personal taste, this entire list is completely subjective. I’m in no way saying these shows are “objectively the best”; they’re simply the ones I personally enjoyed most over the last ten years. My number one pick is my favourite show of the decade, but the others could really be in almost any order – they’re all so good. So let’s dive in!

Number 10: Elementary (2012-19)

Elementary took Holmes and Watson to New York City.

While the BBC won almost universal acclaim for their series Sherlock, a second modern-day take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective premiered in the USA. Elementary stars Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as Holmes and Watson respectively, the latter being “gender-swapped” to be female. I’m not usually a fan of changing the fundamentals of a character in this way, but this take on Sherlock Holmes was so altogether different from its source material that here, it worked surprisingly well.

One of the main reasons why I found Elementary to be preferable to Sherlock – and I’m afraid the comparison is an inescapable one – is simply that there was much more to watch. Sherlock, at time of writing, has had a grand total of 13 episodes over four seasons, and while most of them were good, there wasn’t actually a lot to get stuck in to as a viewer. Elementary, in contrast, ran for seven seasons and has a grand total of 154 episodes. While quantity over quality is not a good argument, if the quality is good then I’ll always be happier with a series that delivers more to watch. And as good as Sherlock was, Elementary just offered so much more.

Miller and Liu lead the cast, but there are great performances from guests such as Rhys Ifans and Natalie Dormer, the latter playing Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty in earlier seasons. These recurring characters add an extra element to the show and allow for character development and arcs over multiple seasons, in addition to the episodic nature of much of the show. Indeed Elementary is one of the few series this decade to primarily stick to an episodic format, allowing Holmes and Watson to solve a huge variety of cases over the course of all seven seasons. As with some shows that run for a long time, toward the end the quality dipped a little as storylines became overly complicated, but overall Elementary is a really enjoyable crime drama/detective show that brings Sherlock Holmes firmly into the modern day.

Number 9: The Terror (2018-19)

Ciarán Hinds on a promo image for The Terror‘s first season.

I’m always more than a little sceptical when it comes to an entertainment product using real-world people and historical figures without their permission or knowledge. And The Terror, at least in its first season, uses the crew of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition as its cast of characters. I’m also not a fan of horror in general, but the story of the Franklin Expedition was too tempting to pass up, so I gave The Terror a chance. And I’m so glad that I did.

Sir John Franklin – portrayed by Ciarán Hinds as a somewhat pompous and ill-prepared leader – takes command of two ships on an expedition to find the northwest passage at the very end of the Age of Exploration. Almost all of the world had been mapped by the 1840s, save for some of the most northerly arctic regions, and the Franklin Expedition was aiming to find a way to cross between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This serves as the backdrop for the series, which is ultimately about the increasingly desperate attempts of the crew to survive, as well as fend off a soul-devouring monster.

Luckily the monster didn’t get too much screen time, and in the vein of classics of the monster horror genre like Jaws was the better for being largely unseen. Both Tobias Menzies and Jared Harris give incredible performances as naval commanders, and the story plays out across a single season, leaving practically the entire cast dead by the end.

The second season picks up a completely different story, set this time in a Japanese internment camp in the USA during WWII, and The Terror thus becomes an anthology series. The second season wasn’t as strong as the first, but did feature Star Trek’s George Takei among its cast – noteworthy because he was, in his youth, interred in such a camp.

An interesting premise gave The Terror the foundation upon which a truly interesting series was built, and as a horror show that didn’t focus too much on jump-scares or gore, it was something different in the 2010s. Finally, as a character study of individuals dealing with incredibly difficult, almost unimaginable circumstances, The Terror has certainly earned its spot on this list.

Number 8: The Last Ship (2014-18)

The U.S.S. Nathan James on a promo image for The Last Ship.

Post-apocalyptic settings have been common in entertainment this past decade, but few series nailed it the way The Last Ship did. Rather than an alien invasion, like in Falling Skies, or something supernatural, like in The Walking Dead or The Strain, the threat here is something down-to-earth and real: a viral pandemic. To me, that sense of realism heightened the drama – the premise of The Last Ship feels like something that could actually happen some day, and I found that to be absolutely gripping.

At the heart of it, though, The Last Ship is about characters, as the best shows often are. The crew of the U.S.S. Nathan James go through a heck of a lot, first to find a sample, then to create and distribute a cure, before finally facing the impossible task of rebuilding civilisation. There are some great ship-to-ship battles here, for fans of such things, and despite a lot of modern series and films having a military focus, modern-day naval combat isn’t something there’s been a lot of on television. So in that sense, those sequences are as interesting to watch as they are nervewracking and dramatic.

The show isn’t afraid to take risks – splitting up its cast at numerous points, often for multiple episodes at a time, as well as killing off key crew member and scientist Dr Rachel Scott at the end of its second season. The latter is an especially bold move given the focus The Last Ship had on the work undertaken to cure the virus and synthesise the cure in a form which was easy to distribute.

As in many post-apocalyptic settings, a significant part of the drama comes from human beings facing unprecedented situations for which they were not prepared. Many of the show’s antagonists – such as a government official illegally burning the bodies of the dead to fuel a power plant – are created by circumstance, and while in the context of the show we root for the crew of the Nathan James to bring them down, in more thought-provoking moments we’re left wondering just what we’d have done in such a situation.

Number 7: The Vietnam War (2017)

Title card for The Vietnam War.

As I mentioned in my previous list, which was about the best films of the decade, I’m a big fan of documentaries. And Ken Burns has produced some absolutely outstanding documentaries about the United States, with his latest work tackling the Vietnam War.

I studied the war quite a bit when I was at university, so the overall story is well-known to me, as I’m sure it would be to a lot of people. But that didn’t mean that the way it was presented here, complete with interviews given by soldiers on both sides, and many others who were involved with or affected by the war, was in any way less interesting. The Vietnam War is a masterpiece, telling the story from the American side, but not with malice or bias toward the Vietnamese – who did ultimately win, of course.

The soundtrack is also outstanding, featuring many classic songs of the era, including a number of protest songs. In many ways, the societal divisions we’re living through today have a parallel in the Vietnam era – pro-war and anti-war activists would frequently clash, and there was no middle ground and no civility between the two sides. Sound familiar?

What was great about The Vietnam War is that Ken Burns didn’t treat the retreat from Saigon as the end of the affair. Instead the documentary continues, exploring in detail the consequences of a communist victory for the south – and the country overall. In many ways, Vietnam was a turning point for the Americans, who’d never been on the losing side of a war since 1812, and a reality check on their foreign policy. The legacy of that conflict persists today, both for the Americans and Vietnamese, and The Vietnam War explores the issues as carefully as possible while trying to remain balanced.

Number 6: Hannibal (2013-15)

Mads Mikkelsen in a promo image for Hannibal.

Sir Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the famous cannibal was always going to be a difficult act to follow, as his performance in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs is iconic. But to my surprise, Hannibal actually managed to bring something new to the table – pun absolutely intended – and in a positive way, showing off Thomas Harris’ serial killer in all his devious glory.

The premise is interesting – a police procedural where the killer is already known to the audience and is hiding out among the cast. Known to us but unknown to them. It’s something which is incredibly hard to get right, because it risks the story becoming either boring or over-the-top. Luckily, at least in its first two seasons, Hannibal avoids that trap and instead tells a fascinating, if somewhat complicated, story.

The two leads, Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, give outstanding performances as Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter respectively, and the chemistry between the two of them carries the show forward. Unfortunately, the show’s ratings were never great, partly due to its heavy, overly artistic style (a scene which is literally just a slow-motion teacup shattering and then coming back together is always going to have very limited appeal) and it had to be saved from cancellation after both its first and second seasons. The third season was much weaker, at least in my opinion, and I’d have preferred if the second season’s finale – where Hannibal walks away from a wounded Will Graham into the night – had been the series’ end. The first two seasons, however, were fantastic, and there really isn’t another series quite like Hannibal.

The level of gore was very high, but much of it was treated in a very artistic way. Hannibal himself, at least this version of the character, tends to display his victims in a variety of poses, often imitating art or making a point. In one famous sequence, the brain and heart of a judge are cut out, and his corpse is displayed with the two organs balanced on a scale in a brutal display. For some viewers, such content would be shocking and enough to stop watching. In that sense, Hannibal is much more of a niche product than its big screen cousins.

Number 5: Game of Thrones (2011-19)

The end of the title sequence of Game of Thrones.

It’s not in the slightest unfair to say that television in the 2010s was dominated by Game of Thrones. It’s a seminal work, rightly hailed as a classic, and one which will be a joy to return to even in twenty or thirty years’ time. At some point in the future I’d like to do a full retrospective of Game of Thrones, including its controversial and disappointing final season, but there’s far too much to go into on this list.

I hadn’t read George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic before I watched the show – but that’s okay, because he still hasn’t finished writing it. It took me a while to get into Game of Thrones, because despite loving the fantasy setting, the sheer volume of characters introduced in the first few episodes is hard to keep track of at first, especially for a total newcomer.

Game of Thrones changed the way television was produced in three key ways – firstly, it wasn’t afraid to kill off regular cast members. Soaps had been doing this for years, it has to be said, but most prime time shows simply didn’t have a disposable cast until Game of Thrones came along. Secondly, it made multi-season serialised storytelling mainstream for the sci fi/fantasy genre, which had previously been much more episodic in nature. And finally, it demonstrated to television companies that it can be worth investing cinema-level money into television.

Speaking as a fan of science fiction and fantasy, Game of Thrones took what had been a fairly niche, geeky genre and pulled it firmly into the mainstream. People who, a few years ago, wouldn’t have been caught dead watching something like this were drawn into the realm of fantasy – many for the first time – and from the point of view of ensuring more fantasy and sci fi will be produced, and with bigger budgets, that’s a really great thing.

There are too many great individual performances to cover here, but as a whole the cast did a fantastic job bringing these characters to life. And in terms of visual effects, Game of Thrones really does throw cinema-quality visuals at viewers. There are a small number of awkward CGI moments, especially in earlier seasons, but these don’t really notice when taking the series as a whole. As a landmark in the history of television, and a truly outstanding fantasy epic that rivals greats like The Wheel of Time and even Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones is absolutely unmissable. And with prequels and spin-offs set to premiere in the coming years, we haven’t seen the last of the land of Westeros.

Number 4: Chernobyl (2019)

A promo image for Chernobyl.

After Game of Thrones went off the air, I was legitimately wondering how HBO could possibly follow its success. It didn’t take long to get the answer – Chernobyl, produced in conjunction with Sky here in the UK, is probably the best miniseries I’ve ever seen.

The aesthetic of Chernobyl is perfect. I’ve talked before about how nostalgia for the 1980s has been big this decade, but Chernobyl nailed the mid-80s look and feel better than any other show or film. Even the smallest details were perfectly replicated, and while some of the green screen special effects stray a little into the “uncanny valley”, overall the way Chernobyl looks and the way it captures the feel of the 1980s is outstanding.

Telling the story of the 1986 nuclear disaster, Chernobyl might seem like a weird choice for a big-budget production, but as with other entries on this list, what makes it such gripping television is its characters. Jared Harris features in a leading role for the second time on this list, and for good reason. His work in Chernobyl – as whistleblowing scientist Valery Legasov – is one of the best individual acting performances of the decade. A conflicted man, trying to do the right thing while being hampered by the corrupt and ineffective Soviet state, Harris puts his heart and soul into the real-life Legasov, and though there are only five episodes, by the end of the series his death really hits hard. And feels like it matters.

Though the story takes some liberties with the facts of the Chernobyl disaster – supporting character Ulana Khomyuk is a “composite” representing dozens of scientists, the helicopter crash is moved to much earlier after the initial explosion, and the risk of another explosion causing a much more widespread disaster seems to have been overstated – the majority of it is firmly grounded in fact, and Chernobyl is one of the rare drama shows that the audience can learn a lot from. Not just the history of what happened, but some basics of how nuclear power is made. “Now I know how a nuclear reactor works,” says Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård – father of It actor Bill Skarsgård) and I think the audience feels the same way.

The show explores all aspects of the disaster, from the faults in the design of the nuclear reactor, all the way through to the culling of animals in the radiation zone and the disposal of the horribly radioactive corpses of those who died in the immediate aftermath. Chernobyl is both grim and gripping, detailing the story of how individuals rose to the occasion to deal with one of the most challenging moments in recent history.

Number 3: The Expanse (2016-Present)

Title card for The Expanse.

Based on a series of novels, The Expanse is one of the most unique and interesting science fiction settings I’ve seen in a very long time. It takes many sci fi tropes – like faster-than-light travel, a united human species, and a galactic community of aliens – and ignores them, charting a path for itself that is completely different than anything else on television.

The Expanse is set in a near-future solar system where humans have colonised Mars and parts of the asteroid belt, but Mars has broken away to become a fully independent power, and “The Belt”, as it’s known, is far enough removed from Earth as to be practically autonomous. There’s a cold war going on between Earth and Mars, and it’s with this backdrop that the drama of the series unfolds.

For a SyFy channel original, I was impressed with the production values, visuals, and acting. Across the board, The Expanse delivered an exciting and cinematic story. When SyFy cancelled the series in 2018, fans started a campaign to have someone else pick it up, and Amazon stepped in. A fourth season will premiere in only a few days time. A modern-day version of the Star Trek letter-writing campaign of 1968, this success in bringing the show back shouldn’t be understated. It would have been a great shame to leave the story incomplete – especially as it had reached such an interesting point – and the fact that Amazon was willing to step in and pay for a fourth and fifth season is testament to the power of online fan communities.

There are some great performances in The Expanse too, notably from Thomas Jane, Dominique Tipper, and Shohreh Aghdashloo. The series starts with several completely separate story threads – a police detective in The Belt looking for a missing girl, the crew of a freighter transporting ice receiving a distress call, and a UN representative questioning a terrorist. Subsequent episodes bring in additional characters, like a marine from Mars and the crew of a space station run by The Belt. The way these stories play out and slowly work their way together is narratively brilliant, and the way the books have been adapted for television has been hugely successful. Casting choices were on point, and the aesthetic is great. It can be difficult to visually convey something as radically different as an extraterrestrial, but The Expanse manages to do so in an interesting way. In many shows and films, aliens end up looking just like people with a funny prosthetic, or puppets, or variants of animals or people from Earth. The weirdly ethereal way that The Expanse treats its alien element is unique and fascinating to see. There’s a heavy reliance on CGI at times, but generally it’s well done.

Rather than treating alien life as commonplace, as other sci fi series tend to do, The Expanse shows it off as something radically different and unique, and highlights the incredible danger even a molecule could do to us if we’re not prepared for it. Now that the show has been saved and its future on Amazon looks secure, it’s going to be fascinating to see what’s in store for the crew we’ve come to know.

Number 2: Phineas and Ferb (2007-2015)

“Mom! Phineas and Ferb are making a title sequence!”

I firmly believe that Phineas and Ferb is one of the best cartoon series ever made. A Disney Channel original, the show ran for four seasons across seven years, and even spawned a feature film. The characters have since cropped up in episodes of Milo Murphy’s Law – created by the same team behind Phineas and Ferb – so while it went off the air in 2015, the characters are still kicking around over at Disney.

What Phineas and Ferb does well is that it throws in little jokes, references, and easter eggs which adults can enjoy, while still being 100% kid-friendly. The best kids shows and films do this, and the little inside jokes between us and the creators that kids wouldn’t necessarily get is part of what gives the show its near-universal appeal.

Unlike many cartoons, which tend to follow a single story thread, Phineas and Ferb uses its ten-minute runtime to tell three distinct stories. The formula of each story doesn’t really change all that much from one episode to the next: Phineas and his step-brother Ferb build something or invent something, often with their friends; their older sister Candace tries (and fails) to get them in trouble with their mother for their dangerous activity; and all the while family pet Perry the Platypus is actually a secret agent who disappears to battle an evil scientist. Simple, right?

The two wholly separate elements – the boys’ invention and Perry’s battle with the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz – don’t interact much with each other, essentially making the series two shows rolled into one. The voice acting is great, and the plot, while silly and totally aimed at kids, is a perfectly fun distraction. Practically every episode also features a song, and many of the songs are catchy and downright hilarious. There are also some touching moments, notably in the Christmas special and in the series’ finale. Phineas and Ferb also attracted some great guest stars over the course of its run, including boxer Evander Holyfield, the cast of Top Gear, actor Ray Liotta, actor and producer Seth MacFarlane, and singer Kelly Clarkson.

On a personal note, Phineas and Ferb has been a show I drift back to when my mental health is poor. The happy tone, the musical elements, and the bright colours can absolutely take the edge off when things seem dark. It’s really for that reason that I’m putting it here on the list.

Honourable Mentions:

Before I end the list I wanted to briefly highlight another ten shows, which could’ve easily been the top ten themselves. As I said at the beginning, it’s been a great decade for television, and there’s certainly way more than ten or twenty series worth watching. I have a pretty long list of shows I’ve been meaning to watch but haven’t gotten around to yet – including highly-recommended ones like Breaking Bad, Stranger Things, and The Orville. I know, I haven’t seen The Orville yet. Sue me.

The Simpsons (1989-Present) – It may surprise some of you to know that this classic cartoon is still running, but it is. After years of declining quality, recent seasons have improved greatly and the series is well worth a second look.
Page Eight (2011, 2014) – AKA The Worricker Trilogy, this political thriller was gripping from start to finish, and features a wonderful performance from Bill Nighy.
Terra Nova (2011) – A fun dinosaur/time travel series that was unfortunately cancelled after one season, just as the story was looking to get even more interesting.
Turn – Washington’s Spies (2014-17) – Telling the history of a spy ring that aided the Americans during the War of Independence, this show was entertaining and exciting, with some fun moments for a history buff like me.
Rick & Morty (2013-Present) – A hilarious animated show that satirises the science fiction genre, and plays fast and loose with its timeline and canon to great effect.
Short Treks (2018-Present) – Designed as a way to keep Star Trek on the air in between seasons of Discovery, these short-format episodes have told some amazing and occasionally very funny stories of their own.
The Strain (2014-17) – A vampire apocalypse comes to New York City in this show created by Guillermo del Toro. David Bradley gives an incredible performance as a seasoned vampire hunter.
The 100 (2014-20) – Set 99 years after a nuclear war, the show follows survivors who return to Earth after spending their whole lives in space. While it can be a bit “teenager-y”, it’s a solid work of post-apocalyptic sci fi.
11.22.63 (2016) – Based on the Steven King novel of the same name, this time travel thriller follows an attempt to prevent the assassination of JFK, and comes with a great twist.
Black Sails (2014-17) – Imagined as a prequel to classic novel Treasure Island, this series takes a more serious look at the Golden Age of Piracy than the recent Pirates of the Caribbean film series.

Number 1: Star Trek: Discovery (2017-Present)

Promo image for Star Trek: Discovery.

It couldn’t possibly be anything else at the top of this list, right? After a twelve-year period in which the Star Trek franchise received three decent, but imperfect, action-heavy films, I was longing for it to return to the small screen where it belongs. Star Trek: Discovery is the reason I signed up for Netflix (we don’t have CBS All Access here in the UK) and it’s been well worth it.

As with most Star Trek shows, the start was rocky, but it picked up over a solid first season, with a great performance from Jason Isaacs as Capt. Gabriel Lorca. The second season improved greatly, and Anson Mount’s portrayal of legendary Star Trek character Capt. Christopher Pike has justifiably spawned a campaign for him to get his own show – seemingly catching the creators off-guard.

Discovery has taken a serialised approach to Star Trek, following the trend of many shows this decade, and that has allowed it to tell two season-long stories. The visuals have been updated massively; even the original Enterprise got a redesign. Some fans have felt the aesthetic was too similar to that used in the Kelvin timeline films, but taken as a standalone show, I think there’s nothing wrong with that. And the special effects and CGI have been fantastic.

Though we haven’t spent as much time as I’d have liked with all of the characters, there have been some wonderful character moments and relationships. A show like Discovery needs that, and the character development that has taken place over the first couple of seasons has been a joy to watch for the most part. Characters like Saru and Stamets have come into their own over the course of the series so far, gaining in confidence and going above and beyond for their crew.

Unfortunately, as with Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, this return to the Star Trek franchise hasn’t sat well with some fans, and in that sense that show has been divisive in the wider Trek fanbase. That’s a shame, but it’s a natural consequence of studios playing on nostalgia. There are some people who just don’t want anything new – if they want more Star Trek at all, they want to see carbon copies of what’s come before, not a show that tries to take the franchise to new places. Personally I’m just glad to see Star Trek back on our screens, and I hope it stays around for a long while yet.

For me to rank Star Trek: Discovery so highly considering that two of its key narrative elements in its first two seasons – the Mirror Universe and time travel – are generally not my favourite Star Trek stories is testament to just how good this series has been, and how happy I am to have Star Trek back after years in the wilderness.

Star Trek legend (and future Star Trek: Picard guest star) Jonathan Frakes stepped up to direct several episodes of Discovery across its first two seasons, further cementing its connection to the franchise. His episodes were actually among my favourites, and I look forward to seeing more from him in both Picard and the third season of Discovery when they premiere next year.

Star Trek: Discovery aimed to breathe new life into a franchise that had started to run out of ideas, and it has succeeded beyond all expectations. Its success has paved the way for Star Trek: Picard, as well as Lower Decks, Section 31, and other future Star Trek projects, and while it may not be everyone’s all-time favourite, in that sense it’s been great news for the franchise. I’m more than happy to crown it my favourite show of the decade.

So that’s it. Those are my picks for the decade’s best television shows. As I indicated, there have been a number of series that I just haven’t found the time to sit down and watch yet, despite meaning to. But that happens, life gets in the way sometimes! There will be plenty of time to get caught up and binge-watch them in future. If your favourite series didn’t make the list, please just remember that this is all subjective. These are just the shows I enjoyed, it doesn’t mean what you like isn’t just as good. In case you missed it, you can check out my picks for the decade’s top films here. And stick around, because coming up next will be the final part of this series where I’ll look back at the decade’s top ten video games. See you next time!

All television series discussed in the list above are the copyright of their respective studios and distributors. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Obligatory end-of-the-decade list #1

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for each of the films on the list. If you haven’t seen one and don’t want to have it spoiled, skip that entry and scroll to the next.

It’s December 2019, and with the 2020s just around the corner, it’s time to look back at some of the entertainment high points of the decade as it draws to a close. In this first list, I’ll be looking at my personal picks for the decade’s top films.

The 2010s saw some rather impressive technological leaps in cinema, particularly in the realm of special effects. The CGI of the 1990s and 2000s looks incredibly amateurish by today’s standards. Going back to some earlier films – even big-budget blockbusters – which rely heavily on CGI can seriously detract from the experience, especially on today’s large format 4K displays.

Narratively, the decade has seen franchises and sequels firmly dominate the box office, inspired by the success of Marvel in particular. It’s also been a decade where nostalgia and throwbacks to past films and franchises has been important. Many films have gotten sequels years or even decades after release – the revival of the Star Wars franchise being most notable.

By the way, the numbering here isn’t necessarily in order. The number one film is my favourite film of the decade, but the others could really be put in any order. All are great and while some have flaws or weren’t perfect, these are the films I enjoyed most. If your favourite(s) don’t make the list, just remember this is all subjective. You like what you like and I like what I like. And that’s great!

Number 10: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 & 2 (2010 and 2011)

Herminone, Ron, and Harry in the promotional poster for Deathly Hallows Part 1.

This is kind of a cheat because it’s two films, but it’s my list so that’s just tough. Looking back to the beginning of the decade, it’s hard to imagine that the Harry Potter series hadn’t yet concluded. But Deathly Hallows was split into two parts, coming out in 2010 and 2011, and they brought the series to an explosive conclusion. The decision to split up Deathly Hallows – which was, of course, a single book – into two films got a lot of criticism at the time for being a fairly obvious and shameless money grab, but the thing about the Harry Potter series is that there was always a lot of cut content from the books. So while it certainly was a moneymaking ploy on the part of studio Warner Brothers, it wasn’t one which damaged the films. If anything, the extra runtime makes Deathly Hallows a more enjoyable and fully-rounded experience.

Prior to JK Rowling messing with the characters (did you hear Dumbledore is gay now?) Deathly Hallows marked the end of the Harry Potter saga, which had been running since 2001’s The Philosopher’s Stone. Subsequent attempts to pull fans back in, with the two Fantastic Beasts films and the Cursed Child stage play haven’t managed to be anywhere near as successful, either in terms of story or financial results, so it would’ve been better in many ways if this had been the final entry in the series.

By this point in the film series, we’ve been with the characters for a long time, we’ve got to know the actors and watched them in a very literal sense grow into their roles. Deathly Hallows doesn’t shake up the formula or the aesthetic of the Harry Potter world. It’s more of the same, building on previous films and drawing the story to a satisfactory conclusion. The climactic fight against antagonist Voldemort had been building slowly over several films and when he was finally vanquished – with Harry’s trademark disarming spell, no less – it was a great and emotional moment. Aside from the awkward epilogue with several key characters having been “aged”, both films accomplish what they set out to. And as a fan of Harry Potter overall, it was a good way to say goodbye to the series. Or at least, to this iteration of it with these actors. I wouldn’t be shocked at all if Harry Potter returns as a big-budget television series in a decade or two.

Number 9: Frozen (2013)

Promo poster for 2013’s Frozen.

In the autumn of 2013, when Disney’s Snow Queen-inspired Frozen was released, I was living in a different country, and perhaps it’s for that reason that I missed out on almost all of the advertising and hype for this film. It was only when browsing local cinema listings for English-language films that I even heard about Frozen, and decided from that to go to see it. Disney films have always been decent, so I wasn’t expecting to be disappointed, but I really was surprised at just how good Frozen was.

We could do a whole article on how the animators created the incredible snow for the film – important, obviously, in a film with such a wintry setting – because honestly the amount of work that went into that aspect alone is amazing. The snow in Frozen looks and behaves like real snow, right down to its powdery consistency, and the level of detail really took me by surprise. I understand that animators spent months working on just this one aspect of the film, and that attention to detail shows in the finished product. Frozen wouldn’t be half as good if it looked like Anna and her sister Elsa were trekking across a flat sheet of paper.

As a story, Frozen stands out for breaking the typical Disney Princess mould. Rather than being a story of a damsel in distress being rescued by a dashing prince, Frozen turns that on its head by having the central characters be two sisters, and the ultimate act of love be one of sisterly love. In addition, the dashing handsome prince featured in the early part of the film turns into a villain in what is, by Disney’s standards at least, a shocking and unexpected twist.

Despite being played perhaps more than a little too often in the years after Frozen‘s release, the soundtrack is also amazing. Let It Go, the main song from the film, is undoubtedly one of Disney’s best, and there are several others throughout the film which are memorable. It’s always nice to be surprised at the box office, and Frozen definitely did it for me this decade.

I’d like to give an honourable mention to Disney’s other great film of the decade, Moana. When I was writing this list I debated including Moana, but when it came down to a choice between the two, Frozen just edges it for me. Still a great watch though, and with Disney+ coming soon, there’s no excuse to not see both!

Number 8: A Brony Tale (2014)

Ashleigh Ball on the promo poster for A Brony Tale.

I love a good documentary. I’d have put more docs on this list if I had more space, but considering the theatrical documentaries of the decade, A Brony Tale definitely earns its spot. The film could’ve easily descended into ridiculing the so-called Bronies (a portmanteau of “bro” and “pony”) but manages to stay away from mocking its subject matter, instead telling a more nuanced story.

The film follows My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic voice actress Ashleigh Ball as she prepares to attend a Brony convention. Prior to watching the film, I was loosely aware of Bronies – largely from internet memes – but I hadn’t really spend any time investigating the cartoon or its fans. Bronies, if you’re unaware of the term, are adults (usually men, but the community includes women too) who have become fans of the 2010 cartoon series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Obviously the odd thing about this, for anyone who knows their cartoons and toy brands, is that My Little Pony is aimed at girls, specifically girls aged 6-12, so for adult men to be interested in this series raises a lot of questions.

The documentary tackles its subject matter in a respectful way, letting fans of the show speak for themselves without being overly judgemental or preachy. One story, recounted by the father of a fan, explained how someone dealing with depression and mental health had found an artistic outlet after being inspired by My Little Pony. And the fans themselves come from many walks of life as well as different backgrounds.

At the centre of it all was Ashleigh Ball and her decision to attend a convention. She specifically talks about how she’s used to being anonymous as a voice actress, and how it will be an unusual experience to be the star attraction and have so many people knowing and recognising her. The film documents her struggle to understand and come to terms with the phenomenon of adult fans. And again, the way it’s presented and the way the film explores both the fandom itself and Ball’s reaction to it was done tastefully and respectfully.

It’s also a reminder that any fandom can be seen as odd from the perspective of an outsider. Something like Star Wars is practically mainstream nowadays, but when I was at school, Star Wars was very much a nerdy franchise to be associated with, as was Star Trek or something in the fantasy genre. It’s fascinating to me to see how something like Game of Thrones became as popular as it did as a fantasy series, when not that long ago it was something mainstream audiences would’ve looked down on. The overall message of A Brony Tale seems to be: “let people enjoy whatever they want and try not to judge”. I like that message, and that’s what I took away from the film.

Number 7: Lincoln (2012)

Daniel Day-Lewis won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the titular American President in Lincoln.

Now for a complete change of pace. The American Civil War – and American history in general – has always interested me, so Lincoln had been on my radar for a while prior to its 2012 release. And it was absolutely worth waiting for.

Telling the story of the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, as he struggled with Congress to end the Civil War and emancipate southern slaves, the film and its spectacular cast do an amazing job portraying the complexities of negotiations and political manoeuvring. Sometimes a story can be uninteresting if its ending is known – and we know, of course, that Lincoln successfully freed the slaves and won the war – but in this film, how it played out is a joy to watch.

Aesthetically, Lincoln does a great job portraying Washington DC as it would’ve looked in the 1860s, and the costumes and set designs are absolutely on point. The dirty, gritty reality of life in those days is conveyed beautifully on screen, and supplements the story and acting greatly. People often downplay these aspects of a film, and while its true that some minimalist productions can do well – especially on the stage – as well as low-budget films that don’t necessarily have money to waste, in a title like Lincoln getting the look right definitely adds a quality to the film that just wouldn’t exist even if all other factors (the script, acting, direction, etc) were identical.

Lincoln stands up among other great works of cinema, and I think in future will be hailed as a must-watch classic of the history and drama genres. With Steven Spielberg directing and producing, alongside fellow producer and future Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy, there was so much to this film that even after multiple viewing I still find new elements to enjoy and new moments to revel in. Overall a really stunning piece of cinematic history.

Number 6: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

A different look at the Starfleet logo on the poster for Star Trek Into Darkness.

Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t my favourite Star Trek film. It’s probably not even in my top five, but it’s definitely the better of the only two Star Trek films released this decade. As a follow-up to 2009’s Star Trek reboot, Into Darkness builds on its predecessor and is a solid action flick with a twist (some) fans will have appreciated, and a flickering of that elusive “Star Trek-ness”. It’s also notable for being Leonard Nimoy’s final film role; unfortunately the decade has claimed many Star Trek actors.

So I have to admit that as a big Star Trek fan, it would’ve felt wrong to not include a Trek film on this list. That’s 100% my own bias coming through rather than a commentary on Into Darkness, which is a decent action film but probably not one of the best ones I’ve ever seen. What Into Darkness did, however, as with its predecessor and sequel, is keep the Star Trek franchise ticking over, giving it some breathing room while keeping it alive in the popular consciousness. It’s hard to see how we’d have got to see Discovery, Picard, or Lower Decks next year if the JJ-verse films hadn’t given the franchise a breath of fresh air. In that sense, Into Darkness – as arguably the best of the reboot films – is a key stepping stone in the franchise’s continued success. And while the film stands up on its own merits as a piece of Star Trek storytelling, in my opinion at least, its biggest accomplishment is paving the way for what’s come since.

The twist Into Darkness springs on fans was clever, but also had been rumoured to be happening, and the result of that rumour being all over the internet in the weeks before release detracted from it somewhat as I wasn’t surprised. Central villain John Harrison (played by Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch) is revealed to be famous Star Trek baddie Khan, and what follows is a film which pays homage to The Wrath of Khan without going overboard. As a JJ Abrams film, in that sense I greatly prefer it to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which went too far in copying its 1977 predecessor.

It’s become a recurring theme in this list, but the special effects and visuals were great in Into Darkness, and the difference between this iteration of Star Trek and what we’ve seen previously is huge. While some of the aesthetic changes haven’t sat well with fans of TOS, and I understand that, the effects, particularly in big set-pieces, look fantastic even six years later.

Number 5: The Hobbit trilogy (2012, 2013, & 2014)

Cover of the DVD or Blu-Ray version of The Hobbit trilogy.

Realistically I should’ve just put the first two parts on this list, because the third film isn’t all that great. Indeed, The Hobbit is overall a poor relation to the previous decade’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, but nevertheless was an enjoyable return to Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth.

Martin Freeman is the standout here, a perfectly-cast lead as titular Hobbit Bilbo Baggins. It’s through his eyes that we see Middle-Earth as we follow his adventure to The Lonely Mountain with the Dwarves, and Freeman’s strong performance carries what would otherwise be a much more underwhelming trilogy of films. Part of the criticism these films got is due to comparisons to Lord of the Rings, but that was inevitable, and other criticisms of the runtime, effects, and dialogue are valid.

When I saw the first and second parts in the cinema, I was able to see the “high frame rate” version, shot in 48 frames-per-second – a novelty for the big screen. While this seemed gimmicky and even offputting at first, once I got used to it it did make for an interesting experience. Disappointingly, the films have not been released anywhere in this format, as the DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital releases all stick to the standard cinematic 24 fps.

While the plot of The Hobbit suffered as a consequence of being dragged out across three films instead of one or two, and some of the added new characters fell flat, any time fantasy makes it to the big screen with such a big budget is going to be a positive thing. The plot of The Hobbit is certainly less exciting than Lord of the Rings, at least in the sense that nothing world-ending is threatening our protagonists. Peter Jackson tried to compensate for that by throwing in a lot of “foreshadowing” for the rise of Sauron in Lord of the Rings, but in this case it would’ve arguably been better to stick to the core story.

The final film is a rare example this decade of sub-par special effects, perhaps due to their overuse, and while there are some great moments (such as a Dwarf played by Billy Connolly) overall the first two films do a much better job of telling an interesting fantasy story. Some of the highlights for me included the creepy, claustrophobic time the party spends travelling through Mirkwood in a perfectly-shot sequence, the portrayal of Radagast by former Doctor Who actor Sylvester McCoy, and above all, being back in Middle-Earth once more.

Number 4: Ready Player One (2018)

Lead actor Tye Sheridan on a promo poster for Ready Player One.

The second film on this list to be directed by Steven Spielberg is a geek’s paradise thanks to countless references, easter eggs, and nostalgic throwbacks to films of the 1980s in particular. The story is centred around players in a massive online world who are racing to gain control of that world by solving a series of puzzles its creator left behind when he passed away.

Ben Mendelsohn plays a truly nasty villain, giving the story much more weight and raising the stakes for the main characters. Ready Player One is laden with special effects, and because (most of the time) the effects aren’t trying to be hyper-realistic and imitate reality, but rather imitate a futuristic online game, many issues present in other titles simply vanish here. Because we know that what’s being shown on screen is taking place in a virtual world, there’s no expectation of it to be perfect, and thus none of the “uncanny valley” effect which some CGI-heavy films can fall victim to.

The plot is exciting – and it’s always great to root for an underdog in a fight or race against a big corporation. I have to confess I haven’t read the book upon which the film is based, and I have heard some criticism of the film from fans of the book. But as someone going in with no expectations, I was very impressed and found Ready Player One to be a very entertaining film.

Number 3: Source Code (2011)

Jake Gyllenhaal on a promo poster for Source Code.

I didn’t know what to make of Source Code at first. It’s a complicated film – as time travel stories often are – and it took me a while after leaving the cinema to fully process what I’d seen. Some of the implications are actually a little disturbing – like whether lead Jake Gyllenhaal’s character actually stole someone’s body and identity.

Usually I’m not a big fan of time travel as a concept. It works in some instances, but in too many films and stories it gets convoluted and some stories completely tie themselves in knots either with inexpiable paradoxes or trying to over-explain the rules of time travel in their world. Fortunately, Source Code manages to avoid those traps for the most part, and what results is a genuinely thought-provoking film.

The basic premise is that a secret government programme has given an injured soldier a way to travel back in time to find out who was responsible for a terrorist attack. He only has a few minutes in the past before the explosion occurs and then the operators have to reset the loop and send him back again. It takes multiple visits to the past (or simulated past) before he gets the hang of things. To explain the entire thing would take more time than I have on this list, but suffice to say it’s a fascinating concept that is, for once, well-executed.

Strong performances from leads Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan carry the film, as their characters slowly work out what’s going to happen. It’s perfectly paced, well shot, with a couple of unexpected twists and revelations which keep things interesting. The real-world, modern day setting is a change of pace from a lot of science fiction films of this decade, and I found myself rewatching Source Code multiple times.

Number 2: Deadpool (2016)

A promo poster for Deadpool.

Though it may seem heretical to some, I’m not really into superheroes. As a kid I didn’t read comic books, and the big-budget superhero films I’ve seen over the years – the likes of Fantastic Four or X-Men – just didn’t hold my interest. Even the Marvel films of the last few years haven’t really interested me all that much, and I found myself seeing them more out of obligation than enjoyment. Deadpool was different, however, as a comedy film and with Ryan Reynolds masterfully portraying antihero Wade Wilson.

Not knowing much about Marvel or any of its characters outside of Iron Man and The Avengers, I didn’t really know what to expect going in. I’d heard the film was funny, but it had some real laugh-out-loud moments that I didn’t expect.

I think the problem many superhero films have is that they simultaneously take themselves very seriously while having storylines, characters, and an aesthetic that is childish and inherently un-serious. That disconnect is jarring for me, and takes me out of it. In addition, as I’ve mentioned previously, much of the appeal of Marvel films – as with Star Trek, Star Wars, The Hobbit, and other franchises this decade – is nostalgia. The films appeal much more to people who grew up with these characters in the various comic books, and as someone who just didn’t have that experience I don’t have the same connection to those characters.

What was great about Deadpool, to get back to my original point, is that the whole point of the character is that he doesn’t take himself or his surroundings seriously. That was true in the comic books and it’s carried over to the film perfectly. Reynolds was an absolutely inspired casting choice, as his comedic range fits the character so well. The frequent breaking of the fourth wall – apparently a Deadpool trademark going back to his comic book days – was done perfectly and provided many fun moments.

The over-the-top action was great, as were the gory deaths which earned the film a more restrictive rating than it otherwise would’ve. But it’s hard to see how Deadpool could’ve worked as a film marketed at kids and teenagers; it needed to have the freedom to offend in order to accomplish what it set out to. Overall, I don’t really care whether it stayed true to its source material, but Deadpool was a hilarious send-up of the whole superhero genre.

Honourable Mentions:

Just before I declare my favourite film of the decade, I want to look briefly at a few other titles that almost made this list. I’ve picked ten – which absolutely could’ve been the top ten themselves. Obviously there are way more than ten or twenty films to enjoy from the 2010s, and while the decade has been dominated by sequels and franchises, there have been some great original and standalone works too.

Oz The Great And Powerful (2013) – A fun return to the Land of Oz, fronted by James Franco.
Jurassic World (2015) – An interesting attempt to reboot the Jurassic Park franchise. It was nice to see a fully-operational park.
Tomorrowland (2015) – An underrated film loosely based on the Disneyland attraction. Great performances and an interesting concept.
Bohemian Rhaposdy (2018) – Perfectly acted by Rami Malek, who won an Academy Award, this biopic of Queen’s front man is an entertaining look at the band’s rise.
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) – Controversial and unfortunately divisive among fans, Rian Johnson’s film tried to shake up Star Wars after JJ Abrams played it very safe two years prior. And it succeeded.
Joker (2019) – I can’t rank this because I haven’t seen it. But everything I’ve heard has been great and I can’t wait to see for myself.
Moana (2016) – As mentioned above, a great Disney film with an inspirational story. And some catchy songs.
World War Z (2013) – Less a horror film than an action flick with zombies, it stands up as an interesting and different take on the zombie genre in a decade overrun by The Walking Dead.
Game Change (2012) – I fully admit this is a niche film (especially outside the USA) as it documents John McCain and Sarah Palin in their unsuccessful campaign. As someone who finds such things fascinating it was an interesting – if supposedly inaccurate – film.
Phineas and Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension (2011) – What can I say except I really enjoy Phineas and Ferb? The film is based on the longest-running Disney Channel original cartoon, and is more of the same, playing out like a feature-length episode of the show.

Number 1: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

The Death Star looms over the beach on the plant Scarif in this poster for Rogue One.

When it came to naming my favourite film of the decade, I didn’t need to think twice. Rogue One took everything great about Star Wars and condensed it into a single standalone piece of cinema. Though I would argue the scenes with Darth Vader were unnecessary, the full power of The Empire is on full display here, and after The Force Awakens successfully took the story forward by a generation, Rogue One brought fans back to where it all began.

Jyn Erso is such an excellent protagonist; selfish and completely jaded when we first meet her, she becomes conflicted and eventually rises to inspire hope in the Rebellion over the course of the film. Each of the characters we meet is interesting and could reasonably have a whole film or series dedicated just to them. Rogue One is, in that sense, a perfect team-up film, bringing together a diverse array of characters from the Star Wars galaxy in a no-hope plot to steal the Death Star’s plans.

Ben Mendelsohn is on this list as a villain for the second time, and while he was great in Ready Player One, this is truly his outstanding performance. Though unfortunately his character is ultimately overshadowed in the final cut of the film thanks to Darth Vader’s appearances, Krennic is a kind of Star Wars villain we haven’t really seen – the career man who takes far too much glee in his work.

The CGI recreations of both Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing were very, very close to being perfect. And I think in that sense, Rogue One has paved the way for technology that will become increasingly common in future.

Everything from the music, the aesthetic, the return to the era of the Original Trilogy was everything I wanted from a Star Wars film, and the decision to kill off basically the entire cast was an incredibly bold decision in such a franchise- and sequel-focused era of filmmaking. We need more films like Rogue One.

So that’s it. My top picks for films of the decade, and while there are undoubtedly lots of enjoyable films I missed, these are the ones that were, at least, the most memorable. I’ll also take a look back on the decade’s best television series and video games in upcoming lists, so be sure to check back for those before 2020 rolls around.

All films mentioned above are the copyright of their studios and distributors. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.