Looking ahead to The Rings of Power

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for The Lord of the Rings films and for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

It’s been several years since Amazon announced that it had purchased the rights to make a television series based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. In that time, the corporation has kept a tight lid on the show’s progress, and very little news has trickled out. However, with the series aiming to premiere later this year, Amazon has kick-started the marketing push! After the show’s actual name was finally revealed a couple of weeks ago, we got a few different poster designs, and then a few images featuring some of the cast, before the first official teaser trailer made its debut a few days ago.

Today I thought it could be interesting to look at what’s been revealed and teased so far, and see what we might be able to gleam about The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. This is going to be the most expensive television series ever created, and was greenlit out of the gate for five seasons. Intended to be Amazon’s answer to Game of Thrones, the show aims to build on the renewed success that the high fantasy genre has been experiencing. Based on Amazon’s financial commitment we should be in for a series with high production values and great visuals – one which can push boundaries and set a new high bar for television in general. That might sound like I’m asking for too much, but with a billion dollars on the line and competitors like Disney doing some incredible things with visual effects on streaming shows like The Book of Boba Fett, anything less would be underwhelming in the extreme.

Morfydd Clark as Galadriel in a promotional image.

First up, let’s talk about the title. I’m sorry, but The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is an incredibly clunky, unwieldy title for a television series. In its short form, I guess we’ll be referring to the series as The Rings of Power, which is better! But the first thing that struck me was that it wasn’t a particularly inspired or original title. It frames the new series entirely around the rings Sauron had made for the Elves, Dwarves, and Men of Middle-earth, and that seems to take the series back to the familiar story that we’ve already seen play out.

Rather than this prequel using Tolkien’s work as a base for building its own story, the title seems to suggest that we’re really going to be seeing earlier chapters in the story we already know. There was scope, when stepping back literally thousands of years, to do something different. Early rumours suggested that the series might look at the rise and fall of Númenor, one of the kingdoms of Middle-earth that was extinct by the time of The Lord of the Rings, and while Númenor’s story may indeed play a role, the title of the series now suggests that we’re really going to be focusing more on Sauron and his rise to power.

Is this Númenor?

Such a focus makes The Rings of Power more of a direct prequel to the events of The Lord of the Rings and less of an expansion of Middle-earth and Tolkien’s work on the small screen. That isn’t to say it will be bad as a result – but The Rings of Power will be confronted by the typical “prequel problem” that many such productions face: namely, we already know how this story ends. We’ve already seen what is arguably the more interesting part… so just convincing people to stick around and see what came before is automatically a challenge for The Rings of Power to surmount, one that wouldn’t have been present if the series had been structured differently.

Over the past few years since Amazon announced this project, I’ve heard a lot of people saying that the corporation shouldn’t be using the placeholder title “The Lord of the Rings on Prime” because the new series isn’t going to be about The Lord of the Rings. But it now seems that it actually is going to be all about the One Ring, Sauron, and his rise and fall. I’m not the only one who had been expecting the series to go in a different direction, and I think that the decision to stick closer to the established, familiar story represents a lack of boldness on Amazon’s part. Having spent all of this money for the rights to Middle-earth, there may have been a fear that steering away from established characters and storylines would be detrimental to the show’s prospects.

The character of Bronwyn – a healer and single mother, played by Nazanin Boniadi – was created for The Rings of Power.

On the flip side, I’ve heard fears from some fans that The Rings of Power will stray too far from Tolkien’s stories, so I guess there’s no way to satisfy everyone! For those folks, though, I would suggest that the title of the series, and the fact that characters like Elrond, Galadriel, and others will play significant roles means that it can’t be diverting too far away from storylines we might be familiar with.

It’s been a long time since I read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, and I don’t claim to be a Tolkien super-fan who knows all of the ins and outs of Middle-earth and the stories set there. So from my point of view, if the show’s central story arcs are engaging and exciting, they can dip in and out of the so-called “established canon” of Tolkien’s world at will. The same applied in some respects to Game of Thrones, a series which moved progressively further away from its source material season by season. If the stories continue to be well-written and entertaining, and the world populated by fun characters, that’s going to go a long way to making up for any deviations from the stories Tolkien wrote.

Charging horses seen in the teaser trailer.

In terms of the look of The Rings of Power, there’s definitely a heavy influence from the Peter Jackson films. I noted in the poster of King Durin in particular that the Dwarves seem to be modelled on those we remember from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. In other areas, The Rings of Power has seemed to move away and begin to chart its own course, but this will likely be a balancing act that the series will need to keep up for its entire five seasons. New showrunners, designers, and other creatives will always want to stamp their mark on their creation, but if Amazon is banking on fans of The Lord of the Rings films turning up in droves – and nostalgia for those films being a driving force – then it makes sense to expect to see many familiar visual elements.

There will be a marked change after Season 1, though, with production moving from New Zealand to the UK. New Zealand has become practically synonymous with Middle-earth for many folks because of The Lord of the Rings being produced there, and the country has even traded on that, using Middle-earth to bring in tourism. Unfortunately it’s the fault of the pandemic that production had to be moved, but we won’t see the consequences of that – in either a positive or negative sense – until next year. It’s possible, in my view, that if Season 1 is deemed underwhelming the second season could be a soft reboot, changing up the look and feel of the series. Time will tell!

Robert Aramayo as Elrond and Morfydd Clark as Galadriel.

The trailer itself was action-packed and looks exciting. We saw different races (Men, Dwarves, and Elves) featured, as well as a few magical creatures and CGI monsters that I confess I’m not familiar with. But the whole thing was well constructed and cut together, and I think it showed off a diversity of characters and locations without revealing too many spoilers or too much about the potential storylines. It was a tease to get viewers interested, and I think it largely succeeded in that regard.

I noted what could be either a sinking ship or, perhaps, the sinking/destruction of the island of Númenor among the clips in the trailer, something that was also shown off in one of the behind-the-scenes photos. There was also what appeared to be a large battle taking place; this can’t be the climactic battle between Sauron and the Last Alliance, surely, because it was that battle that led to Sauron’s defeat and the loss of the One Ring. So I assume that this battle is taking place somewhere else between different groups of forces.

A battle scene from the teaser trailer.

There is definitely a contingent of people who want to see The Rings of Power fail, either because they dislike Amazon in a general sense, or because they see The Rings of Power as moving too far away from their understanding of Tolkien’s works. Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to pre-judge the series at this stage, with a one-minute-long teaser and a handful of photos being all we’ve seen, and I’d encourage everyone to try to lower the temperature in some of these discussions. There’s definitely a racial edge to some of the attacks I’ve seen thrown at The Rings of Power, with some so-called “fans” decrying the inclusion of non-white performers.

Because of Amazon’s status as one of the biggest companies in the world, I guess I can understand the bloody-mindedness of wanting to see it fail – even though it isn’t a sentiment I share. But to have decided already, months before the premiere, that The Rings of Power is somehow going to be unenjoyable – particularly if one of the primary reasons for thinking that way is because non-white actors are in it – seems utterly ridiculous to me. For some of these so-called “fans” to be actively willing the series to fail because it isn’t as white as they wish it would be is just pathetic.

The Rings of Power is coming soon.

As a fan of fantasy, and as someone who has enjoyed Tolkien’s work since I first read The Hobbit before I was ten years old, I want to enjoy The Rings of Power and for it to be an enjoyable and entertaining ride. Some of Amazon’s past productions in the sci-fi and fantasy genres – like The Expanse and The Wheel of Time – have been great, and while this project is certainly bigger and more ambitious, and thus has farther to fall if it doesn’t work, the potential exists for a fantasy series that could be on par with, or even eclipse, those early seasons of Game of Thrones. Amazon certainly has precedent and knows how to make some excellent television shows.

But I will judge the series on its merits when it’s here, and if I review it either as a whole season or as individual episodes I’ll be sure to give my honest thoughts and opinions at the time. I’m not a cheerleader for Amazon, but I’m certainly not going to go on the attack this early on. In my view, the trailer and photos show promise. Everything from costumes and set design to CGI work looked impressive, and The Rings of Power should be on course to make good use of its high budget in that regard. Whether the show’s writing, pacing, editing, acting performances, and the like are up to scratch… the jury is still out and we won’t know until September! But anyone pre-judging the series this early is, in my view, misguided.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will premiere on Amazon Prime Video in September. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is the copyright of Amazon, and The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth, and other properties are the copyright of the Tolkien Estate. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

We’re halfway through 2021!

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

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

Television:

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

Number 1: Star Trek: Discovery Season 4

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

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

Number 2: Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2

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

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

Number 3: Star Trek: Prodigy

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

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

Number 4: Rick & Morty Season 5

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

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

Number 5: Foundation

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

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

Number 6: Dexter

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

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

Number 7: The Dropout

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

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

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

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

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

Number 9: The Witcher Season 2

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

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

Number 10: Tokyo Vice

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

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

Film:

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

Number 1: Jungle Cruise

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

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

Number 2: Free Guy

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

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

Number 3: No Time To Die

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

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

Number 4: Encanto

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

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

Number 5: The Green Knight

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

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

Number 6: Space Jam: A New Legacy

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

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

Number 7: Dune

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

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

Number 8: Top Gun: Maverick

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

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

Number 9: The Matrix 4

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

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

Number 10: Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

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

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

Video Games:

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

Number 1: Kena: Bridge of Spirits

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

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

Number 2: Bear and Breakfast

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

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

Number 3: The Lord of the Rings: Gollum

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

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

Number 4: Mario Party: Superstars

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

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

Number 5: Halo Infinite

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

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

Number 6: Age of Empires IV

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

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

Number 7: Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga

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

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

Number 8: Road 96

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

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

Number 9: Shredders

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

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

Number 10: Forza Horizon 5

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

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

So that’s it!

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

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

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

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

What might we watch and play in 2021?

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

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

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

Cinema

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

Number 1:
Dune

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

Number 2:
No Time To Die

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

Number 3:
Jungle Cruise

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

Number 4:
The Matrix 4

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

Number 5:
Raya and the Last Dragon

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

Number 6:
The Suicide Squad

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

Number 7:
The King’s Man

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

Number 8:
Uncharted

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

Number 9:
Death on the Nile

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

Number 10:
Free Guy

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

Gaming

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

Number 1:
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

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

Number 2:
Hogwarts Legacy

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

Number 3:
Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga

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

Number 4:
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum

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

Number 5:
Skull & Bones

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

Number 6:
Outriders

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

Number 7:
GhostWire: Tokyo

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

Number 8:
Diablo IV

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

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

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

Number 10:
Humankind

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

Television

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

Number 1:
Zack Snyder’s Justice League

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

Number 2:
Star Trek: Prodigy

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

Number 3:
Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series

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

Number 4:
Station Eleven

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

Number 5:
Foundation

Isaac Asimov is one of the grandfathers of science fiction. Whether his work will translate well from page to screen is an open question… but one I’m very curious to see answered. This adaptation of Asimov’s Foundation series will star Jared Harris, an absolutely incredible actor you might recall from 2019’s Chernobyl. It’s being produced for Apple TV+ as one of their first big-budget productions – or at least, the first one I’ve come to care about. 2021 looks set to be a big year for some of these second-tier streaming services!

Number 6:
Star Trek: Lower Decks

Lower Decks has finally secured an international broadcast agreement, more than five months after its first season premiered for viewers in North America. That’s good news, because a second season is already in development and will be able to be shared by fans around the world when it’s ready. Season 1 ended with some surprising twists for an animated comedy, and it remains to be seen what the end result of those storylines will be for our young ensigns aboard the USS Cerritos. Lower Decks took a few episodes to really hit its stride – and there were some missteps along the way – but for my money it’s up there with the best animated comedies of recent years, and I hope that the combination of its international debut and second season will see the show get the admiration it warrants.

Number 7:
The Expanse

I haven’t yet sat down to watch Season 5 of The Expanse, which premiered last month on Amazon Prime Video. However, the first four seasons were outstanding, and Season 6 is set to be the show’s last. Hopefully it will go out on a high! The Expanse is a wonderful science fiction series, one which has tried to take a more realistic look at the dangers of space travel and alien life. Many sci-fi stories treat these elements almost as mundane, yet The Expanse approached them with wide-eyed wonder, making things like accelerating a spacecraft integral parts of its story. It’s a wonderful series, and its final season should be explosive, entertaining, and ever so slightly sad as we bid it a fond farewell.

Number 8:
The Witcher

I half-expected to see the second season of Netflix’s The Witcher last year, but for whatever reason the streaming powerhouse is taking its time. Henry Cavill was great in the title role in Season 1, and hopefully the second season will keep up the high quality. I always appreciate a new fantasy series, and while the show owes its existence to the popular video games, it’s distinct from them at the same time, drawing more on the original book series for inspiration. Its return to our screens – which may not be until later in the year – is highly anticipated!

Number 9:
Star Wars: Andor

I wasn’t exactly wild about the recent announcements of upcoming Star Wars projects. As I wrote at the time: “spin-offs to spin-offs and the increasingly minor characters given starring roles is indicative of a franchise out of ideas.” Part of that criticism was aimed at Andor, the series which will focus on Rogue One’s Cassian Andor. However, on its own merit the show – which bills itself as a “spy thriller” – may very well be decent, and I’m cautiously interested to see what Disney and Lucasfilm bring to the table. Rogue One was certainly one of the better offerings since Disney began producing Star Wars projects, so maybe Andor will surprise me and tell some genuinely different stories in the Star Wars galaxy.

Number 10:
Clarice

Alex Kurtzman’s latest project for ViacomCBS will focus on Clarice Starling – the FBI agent introduced in Silence of the Lambs. How well will a show about Clarice work without Hannibal Lecter? Well that’s an open question, quite frankly, because as far as we know, complicated licensing and rights agreements mean Dr Lecter can’t appear. The show is being pitched as horror, though, following Agent Starling as she investigates sexual crimes in the aftermath of the events of Silence of the Lambs. It certainly has potential!

So that’s it.

You may have noticed some exclusions – notably Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Discovery, and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. While all three are in pre-production for their upcoming seasons, none have been confirmed for 2021 at this juncture. Given the state of the world and how badly production has been impacted, while I remain hopeful that at least one live-action Star Trek show will make it to air, it’s entirely plausible that none will. That’s why they didn’t feature on the list.

If all goes well, 2021 should be a good year for entertainment. I see a lot of projects in film, gaming, and television that have the potential to tell wonderful, engaging stories. If lockdowns and quarantines remain in place – where I live in the UK restrictions just got a lot tougher – then we’ll need all the distractions we can get!

Mark your diary for some upcoming releases!

The year ahead is unpredictable, and it’s possible that some of the projects I’m excited for won’t make it to release – or will end up being less enjoyable than expected. But on the flip side, there are undoubtedly films, games, and television shows waiting in the wings to surprise me; titles that didn’t make this list that I will come to greatly enjoy as the year rolls on. There were several wonderful surprises in 2020 that, had you asked me in January of last year, were not even on my radar. The same will perhaps happen this year too!

With everything going on in the world, having something to look forward to is important. Even if all you can think of that excites or interests you is a television show or video game, that’s okay. It gives you something to hang on to; light at the end of the tunnel. I wish you a very Happy New Year, and all the best for 2021.

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective company, studio, developer, publisher, broadcaster, distributor, etc. Some promotional artwork and images 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.

Previewing Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series

Spoiler Warning: Beware of minor spoilers for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Though disrupted by the pandemic, filming for Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel series resumed earlier this year, and the series currently has a tentative 2021 release date. That could easily slip back into 2022 depending on production-side factors, but I don’t think it’s too early to begin considering what the series could be – and what I’d like to see from it.

The Lord of the Rings was part of my childhood. Not the films – those came years later – but the books. I remember my father reading The Hobbit to me when I must’ve been only six or seven years old, and I later read The Lord of the Rings while still quite young, so it’s not unfair to say they spurred a lifelong interest in fantasy that I still enjoy today. I came to enjoy Tolkien’s works years before I watched Star Trek, so you could even call it one of my earliest fandoms!

The films, which were released from 2001-03, are many folks’ first and only encounter with The Lord of the Rings, and many elements from the films – like the music – which didn’t come from the original books are now considered inseparable from the realm of Middle-earth. The new series has a line to walk between respecting that and trying to do its own thing.

The Lord of the Rings films are held in very high regard.

Expectations will be sky-high for this series. Not only because of its association with the most famous works of the fantasy genre, but because of the frankly insane budget afforded to the show. Simply purchasing the rights to use Tolkien’s world set Amazon back an eye-watering $250 million, and that was before any work had been done on the show at all; no actors had been cast, no scripts written, etc. The budget for the series, which has been given a preliminary five-season order from Amazon, may top out at over $1 billion. This makes it by far the most expensive television series of all time, surpassing the likes of Game of Thrones, and that alone generates a lot of attention and scrutiny. And speaking of Game of Thrones, despite that show’s controversial and disappointing final season, comparisons will be inescapable. The stakes could hardly be higher.

Our last visit to the realm of Middle-earth didn’t go so well. The first two parts of The Hobbit were decent, even good films, but The Battle of the Five Armies wasn’t spectacular, something caused at least in part by the entire film being adapted from a handful of pages of text instead of a whole book! In a way, the disappointment some fans felt at The Hobbit’s adaptation means that Amazon’s series has even more work to do. It has to convince sceptical fans that they want to come back to Middle-earth, and that there are stories worth telling beyond the first three films.

The Hobbit was a less-enjoyable experience overall.

The series will be set during Middle-earth’s Second Age, which makes it a prequel to the events of Lord of the Rings. Taking a setting several thousand years in the distant past could open up myriad possibilities within the story. And we’ve seen some prequels that go down this kind of route achieve success – Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, for example. But the stories of Middle-earth in the Second Age are all background, building up slowly toward the events of the “main” books. The initial rise of Sauron – who is still alive in this era – may prove fascinating to see. Or it may feel underwhelming considering we’ve already seen his ultimate defeat at the hands of Frodo.

Prequels can be difficult to get right. The Hobbit trilogy attempted to bring in characters who weren’t present in the original book in order to “foreshadow” the events of The Lord of the Rings, and it was hit-and-miss. Some elements worked, and some fell flat. Telling a story that serves as a fully-direct prequel to The Lord of the Rings, with characters like Gandalf, Sauron, and the ancestors of people like Aragorn and Legolas could be tricky to get right – there will always be a sense that we’ve seen the main event, and this is just unnecessary fluff.

That’s what happened – in my subjective opinion, of course – with the Star Wars prequels. They took on the less-interesting part of the story, a story that was ultimately wholly unnecessary. We didn’t need a three-film saga depicting the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker to know that Darth Vader was an evil, yet ultimately redeemable, character. Everything we needed to know about Vader was already present in the original films, and the prequels – which had numerous other problems, don’t get me wrong – didn’t feel like they had a purpose or told a particularly compelling story. They did, at least, tell one single story, which is something the Star Wars sequel trilogy failed to do! But that comparison is not a redeeming feature, despite what some like to think.

Legolas in The Desolation of Smaug. The character was not part of The Hobbit novel but was included in the film version.

But we’re off-topic! Prequels can be troublesome and difficult to get right, so one way around that is to tell a story that’s tangentially related to the main event but is otherwise a wholly standalone affair. As strange as it may sound for a show with the working title Lord of the Rings on Prime, the fewer direct references to The Lord of the Rings the better. There’s plenty of scope to see familiar places and races, and if the show keeps to an aesthetic that fits with the films then all of that will be to the good. But where The Hobbit was less interesting was when it ham-fistedly tried to “foreshadow” the events of The Lord of the Rings, so if the new series could find a way to stick to new characters and a storyline that doesn’t stray too much into setting up the events of the earlier films, I think all of that will be to its overall benefit.

Middle-earth, much like the Star Trek or Star Wars galaxies, is a sandbox. It’s a beautifully-created world with a rich lore built up over decades, but the main works set in Middle-earth focus on a relatively narrow slice of that world across a relatively short span of time. Taking us back to the Second Age opens up a lot of possibilities – as would moving forward to a potential Fourth Age! Star Trek demonstrated as early as the 1980s that it’s possible for a franchise to expand beyond its original incarnation and do completely different things. Star Wars has yet to really attempt this, as I noted once, but this is a chance for Middle-earth to do what Star Trek did more than thirty years ago. It has the opportunity to expand beyond Sauron, Bilbo, Frodo, and the Rings of Power.

The kings of Middle-earth receive their rings of power, as seen in The Fellowship of the Ring.

The history of the Second Age is documented, in part, in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. But unlike The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which each look in detail at a few characters across a relatively short timeframe, The Silmarillion is broad, encompassing thousands of years of history and legend within a single work. There are so many opportunities within these legends and this fictional history to either expand upon events it touches on or to create something completely new. There’s certainly the prospect of doing both.

One of the few things we know about the upcoming series is that it will look, at least in part, at the land of Númenor – an Atlantis-type land that would later vanish beneath the sea. Some Númenoreans would settle in Middle-earth, and these long-lived men would be the ancestors of Aragorn and a few other familiar characters.

The destruction of Númenor is documented in The Silmarillion, and if it’s the case that the show will look at that event (or the lead-up to it) there’s still a lot of scope to expand on the familiar and branch out into something entirely new. In fact, because The Silmarillion is a single book, and doesn’t contain anywhere near enough material for a straight adaptation, the producers of the new series will have to get creative!

The Silmarillion may be the basis for the new series.

Picture Credit: Stojanoski Slave, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of the creative team, there are some very interesting folks amongst the producers and writers. Showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay both worked on Star Trek Beyond, and amongst the writing team are folks with credits on such diverse works as Breaking Bad, Hannibal, and Toy Story 4. The director of the first two episodes has also been announced: JA Bayona, the Spanish director of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Some fans were critical when Amazon debuted the creative team, but let’s try to give them a chance. Though most of their names would not be familiar to the average viewer, between them they’ve worked on some huge and very successful projects. There’s an expression that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – perhaps that’s true here. Having spend this much money, Amazon would surely not waste that on a creative team it wasn’t 100% happy with. Unlike some recent projects, there haven’t been any high-profile firings or departures, which I take as indicative of a project progressing nicely.

On the cast front, none of the main players from The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings seem to be returning, at least not at this stage. I do consider cameos at least a possibility, but so far no announcements have been made. The cast that we do know of is led by Robert Aramayo, who is probably best-known for his flashback scenes as young Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. Nazanin Boniadi, who has had co-starring roles in shows like Homeland, also joins the cast along with Tom Budge, Owain Arthur, Morfydd Clark, Ismael Cruz Córdova, who played the Twi’lek Qin on The Mandalorian, Ema Horvath, Joseph Mawle, who played Benjen Stark in Game of Thrones, Markella Kavenagh, Tyroe Muhafidin, Sophia Nomvete, Megan Richards, Dylan Smith, Charlie Vickers, Daniel Weyman, and Maxim Baldry. What do most of these folks have in common? You’ve never heard of them. And why is that significant (aside from perhaps saving Amazon some money)? It follows a trail blazed by Game of Thrones. Set up a series with a mostly-unknown cast, give them a chance to grow into their new roles and become household names for those roles. It was a successful formula in 2011, and for the most part, people weren’t watching that show thinking “hey, I know that actor!” That was a deliberate choice, and I assume the same is true here too.

Robert Aramayo (seen here as young Ned Stark in Game of Thrones) leads a mostly-unknown cast.

Amazon is positioning this new series as a successor to Game of Thrones. The way the casting has been handled, the amount of money being thrown at it, and the general way they’re working on the series all smacks of being an attempt to recreate the magic of one of the last decade’s most important television series. Game of Thrones built on what The Lord of the Rings films had done, and at this stage, folks who would have balked at the idea of watching anything in the fantasy genre a few years ago will surely be interested to check out what this new series has to offer. The genre has become a major part of our cultural landscape, and The Lord of the Rings films set the stage for that in a huge way.

Other than a single map of Middle-earth in the Second Age, Amazon is keeping a tight lid on this project. There haven’t been any leaks or significant rumours about the series, which is a good thing. It’s always nice to go into a new show unspoiled!

The map depicting parts of Middle-earth in the Second Age.

Despite some positive moves from Amazon, and the huge amount of money involved in this production, there are no guarantees of success. The show needs to be well-written, with interesting characters and a story arc – or multiple storylines – that are interesting and worth getting invested in. Game of Thrones, at least in its earlier seasons, came with that built-in because it was based on an already-successful series of novels. The Silmarillion is indeed a successful book, but as mentioned can hardly be adapted verbatim in the same way as A Song of Ice and Fire was for Game of Thrones’ earlier seasons. In that sense, this show represents more of a risk.

I’m hopeful for some truly awe-inspiring fantasy. Returning to the land of Middle-earth is always a treat, and by filming the show in New Zealand – where the films were all produced – it might just feel like a homecoming. Game of Thrones’ final season was a disappointment to many, but this new series has the potential to help us all forget about that and get stuck into another fantasy story all over again – one inspired by the works of the grandfather of the modern fantasy genre. I can hardly wait!

Lord of the Rings on Prime (working title) is the copyright of Amazon Studios. The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings books are the copyright of the Tolkien Estate. Film versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are the copyright of New Line Cinema and Wingnut Films. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.