The Rings of Power: first impressions

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Spoilers are also present for The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and other J.R.R. Tolkien works.

The Rings of Power – or to give it its full, clumsy title: The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – got underway yesterday on Amazon Prime Video. As one of the shows I’d been most interested in all year, I tuned in almost as soon as the opening pair of episodes were available, curious to see what Amazon’s sky-high budget and years of planning could bring to the high fantasy genre.

For me, and doubtless for many other viewers as well, The Rings of Power simply cannot escape three massive sets of expectations. Firstly, the show has a legacy to live up to in the form of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Secondly, as the first-ever “billion dollar” television show, The Rings of Power must demonstrate an ability to go above and beyond pretty much anything else present on the small screen. And finally, there are inevitable comparisons with the show that set the bar for multi-season serialised high fantasy television shows: Game of Thrones. I think it isn’t unfair to say that there hasn’t been a television project in a generation that finds itself under so much pressure to deliver.

Galadriel and Gil-Galad on a promotional poster for The Rings of Power.

As we discussed back in February when I previewed the series, some viewers have taken to pre-judging The Rings of Power. Partly there seems to be a bloody-mindedness in hoping that Amazon would fail, and there were definitely racially-motivated criticisms of some of the casting choices – something that’s been incredibly disappointing to see. But there are also some genuine concerns: could the series possibly live up to the legacies of one of the most successful film trilogies and one of the most influential television shows of the past twenty years? How would it fit in with the “established lore” of Tolkien’s Middle-earth? And more fundamentally, is there even a story here that’s worth telling?

Some folks seem to have arrived at their answers to these questions already, deciding that The Rings of Power is going to be irredeemably awful and taking to social media at every opportunity to denounce it to anyone who’d listen. In the past couple of days the show has even been subjected to a degree of review-bombing. But speaking for myself, I wanted to see The Rings of Power before rushing to judgement. While two episodes of an eight-episode season aren’t enough to paint a full picture, I feel like I can at least share my first impressions of the series with you today.

The Rings of Power has finally arrived.

I liked The Rings of Power. The acting performances were solid, the visual effects were competent, its aesthetic style harkened back to The Lord of the Rings films, and when the story got going it held my attention well enough that two episodes passed by in what felt like a matter of moments. As the credits rolled on the second episode, Adrift, I felt myself curiously interested to see what happens next.

The two-part premiere did a decent job at introducing us to what seems to be the primary characters whose stories The Rings of Power intends to follow. One of my criticisms of Game of Thrones back in 2011 was actually how dense its first few episodes felt; had I not binge-watched Season 1 I may actually have stopped watching the series, as keeping track of so many characters and storylines was pretty confusing. In that sense, The Rings of Power did a good job not to overwhelm viewers with too much all at once.

Lenny Henry as Sadoc, one of the Harfoots.

So I felt that The Rings of Power got off to a good start – but perhaps not a spectacular one. After two episodes, the show feels like it’s trying to play it safe; I didn’t note much by way of risk-taking that could take a decent, competent series and elevate it to the kind of phenomenon that The Lord of the Rings films or Game of Thrones became. By sticking relatively close to the visual style established by The Lord of the Rings, for example, The Rings of Power has tried to both find a ready-made identity and pluck at the nostalgic strings that its producers hope will bring in viewers in droves. But by re-using this aesthetic style, The Rings of Power has surrendered its opportunity to construct its own identity.

It’s also worth talking about the story framework that we saw in the premiere. The trope of a hero who finds evidence of an impending threat or disaster, only to be ignored by their superiors, may have been brand-new when Tolkien was writing in the first half of the twentieth century, but it doesn’t exactly make for a groundbreaking or unique story in 2022. Yet this is the outline of both Galadriel’s story with the Elves and, to an extent, Bronwyn’s story in the Southlands. A common trope like this doesn’t necessarily make for the strongest introduction to a new story.

Galadriel found herself opposed by Elrond and other Elves, despite presenting them with evidence of Sauron’s survival.

Though The Rings of Power did a solid job at introducing us to its main characters, there were definitely moments where I felt some background knowledge of Tolkien’s works was something that the series expected from its audience. These mainly concerned elements of backstory – who the villainous Morgoth is, what a Silmaril is, the relationship between factions like the Elves, Men, and Dwarves, and how Sauron fits into the story of a conflict between the peoples of Middle-earth and Morgoth. A very brief sequence at the beginning glossed over some of these points, but not in sufficient depth that a newcomer to the world of Middle-earth would find them easily understandable.

In terms of laying out the world of The Rings of Power, though, I felt that the series did a good job. After two episodes I feel that I understand who lives where, where locations are in relation to one another, and the layout of the world and the primary locations we’ve visited so far. The relatively simple construction of a map, shown on screen for no more than a few seconds at a time, actually ended up being a very effective tool for communicating these things, and I felt it worked well. The seamless transition from the map to the sea at one point was also a neat effect.

The inclusion of a map was a simple but effective visual tool.

Sticking with visual effects, there weren’t many in the first two episodes that I felt were sub-par. There were a few moments where the blending of real actors and sets with CGI backgrounds wasn’t entirely perfect, but those issues can be noticeable even in big-budget productions, and none of those handful of moments really pulled me out of the immersion. I’d particularly call attention to the “falling star” seen in A Shadow of the Past as one of the better CGI creations; it really managed to feel like a meteor of some kind was hurtling toward Middle-earth.

If I were to nitpick, I’d say that perhaps the physical fake snow used in the first part of A Shadow of the Past wasn’t particularly impressive, managing to have the same flat, non-reflective look of similar set dressings that have been in use for decades. The CGI snow used elsewhere in these sequences looked decent, but when Galadriel and her team were seen up close, there was a noticeable difference in texture. Otherwise, physical props and costumes used throughout the first pair of episodes were solid.

A closer look at the fake snow used in the season premiere.

One of the most interesting props is the darkly enchanted sword hilt that Theo uncovered. It’s fascinating from a story point of view, of course, and may well belong to Sauron or one of his most-important minions. But it manages to look fantastic on screen, too – a dark, intimidating design that seems to harken back to the image of Sauron in full armour from The Lord of the Rings films.

Speaking of harkening back to The Lord of the Rings: surely I’m not the only one who noticed that Halbrand actor Charlie Vickers was doing an almost over-the-top impersonation of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn as he made his first appearance! The way his hair was styled, the way he held himself, and even the way he opened his mouth all felt like they had been carefully choreographed to mimic that iconic portrayal. Halbrand is not a canonical character from Tolkien’s works, and the aforementioned mimicry could be a deliberate red herring, but part of me thinks we’re going to learn that this character has some kind of connection to Aragorn in the episodes ahead!

Halbrand channelling his inner Aragorn…

Some of the battle and post-battle scenes early in the season premiere carried a very strong First World War influence, and I have to assume that was done deliberately. Tolkien was himself a veteran of that conflict, and its influence can be felt in the massive scale of the wars and battles that he created for The Lord of the Rings in particular. This level of destruction, with battlefields reduced to mud, trees stripped of all of their branches, and huge piles of bodies, also succeeded at communicating the scale of the Elves’ conflict against Morgoth and Sauron in a relatively short sequence that didn’t have time to go into a lot of detail, so as an effect it worked well.

Even a century on from the First World War, the way its battlefields looked is still seared into the minds of many people here in the west, and The Rings of Power took advantage of this to use a familiar visual cue to communicate, in a short sequence, just how destructive and devastating this war was as it set the stage for the story to follow.

Galadriel stands on a battlefield that feels reminiscent of the First World War.

A good television soundtrack is unobtrusive. It subtly tells audiences what emotional state certain characters are in, whether danger is just around the corner, or fills an otherwise-awkward gap during silent moments. While a theme tune can become iconic, the soundtrack of episodes themselves should be a relatively toned-down affair. The Rings of Power didn’t get this right, in my view, bringing an incredibly dominating soundtrack that, at several critically-important moments, seemed to hit levels rarely seen outside of soap operas.

The old-fashioned, heavy soundtrack came booming in during several crucial scenes, drawing attention away from the characters and the action instead of backing it up. This is obviously the opposite of what a good soundtrack should be doing, and there are criticisms of both the composition and the sound mixing in both of the first two episodes that I really shouldn’t be needing to make. When we’re at this level, these are some of the basic competencies that a television production should be pulling off flawlessly without even thinking.

One of the moments between Bronwyn and Arondir had music that was, for me at least, too heavy and intrusive.

I’m not a Tolkien super-fan, so I can’t be sure whether some of the dialogue in The Rings of Power has been lifted directly from works like The Silmarillion. But what I would say is that much of the language used in the first two episodes, particularly in scenes featuring the Elves, was very flowery and old-fashioned, as if it had been written decades ago. That was almost certainly intentional, perhaps to tie in with Tolkien’s own writing style or perhaps to give The Rings of Power a “classiness” or even just to distinguish it from other modern shows. However, the effectiveness of this kind of flowery, old-fashioned language is very much a subjective thing, and how well it will work isn’t exactly clear at this early stage.

Some of the lines of dialogue in the first two episodes felt scripted and clumsy – partly as a result of this choice of language – and while I didn’t feel knocked out of my immersion once I got used to it, it was definitely something that took a little getting used to. In any work of fantasy, actors have to work hard to make strange and unusual words and phrases seem normal, but that really isn’t the issue in this case. I can easily accept conversations about warp cores in Star Trek or dragons in Game of Thrones, but here in The Rings of Power, choices as far back as the scriptwriting stage made otherwise innocuous or basic conversations feel almost stilted, as if the production itself, despite its modern visual style and impressive CGI work, was from a much earlier era. For some fans, that’ll make The Rings of Power feel even better. For others… I think it has the potential to detract from the story.

There were several clunky or unnatural-sounding lines of dialogue in the opening two episodes.

As I said, though, once my ears had acclimatised to this way of speaking I didn’t feel it was horribly awkward – but it’s worth noting that, at least for me, it was something that took some getting used to before I could fully immerse myself in Middle-earth. Perhaps I should’ve re-watched The Lord of the Rings before watching The Rings of Power, because now I can’t really remember whether this issue of flowery, old-fashioned language was present to the same degree. I don’t remember it ever being a problem, and I regard that trilogy as one of the best ever brought to screen. But it would be interesting to take a look and compare!

So let’s talk story. Although I find myself curiously interested to see where The Rings of Power goes next and how it will weave its disparate narrative threads together, I don’t feel absolutely gripped by the story after the first two episodes. I’m not desperately awaiting next Friday in the way I can be for new episodes of Star Trek, or in the way I was for Game of Thrones or even shows like Lost.

The Elves of Lindon.

I think partly this is because of the “prequel problem” that I’ve talked about here on the website on more than one occasion. In short, we know where these characters will go and what the ultimate outcome of this story will be. There’s no real sense that Galadriel will ever be in serious danger – because we know she survives for another four thousand years after the events of The Rings of Power. While the series is doing its own thing to an extent by introducing new characters and telling its own story, it’s also billing itself as being firmly set in the world of The Lord of the Rings – heck, that’s the first part of the show’s title. So given that we know the story of The Lord of the Rings and how characters like Elrond, Galadriel, and Sauron fit into it, it’s difficult for The Rings of Power to really reach out and grab me in the same way as a new story with an unknown outcome could.

When we look at The Silmarillion and other Middle-earth books set millennia before The Lord of the Rings, one of the key points is that the characters involved don’t know who Sauron is, whether he’s still around, whether he can come back, etc. But as the audience watching The Rings of Power, we know how this ends: Sauron returns, raises an army, and it takes an alliance of Men, Elves, and Dwarves to defeat him on the slopes of Mount Doom – as seen in the introduction to the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring. Knowing what’s coming robs a story like this of at least some of the tension and excitement, and while it can still be fun to see how the characters arrive at their ending points, we know the destination.

Sauron’s presence looms large over the story.

Even someone like me – and I’m no super-fan of Tolkien by any stretch – knows the basic outline of the story of Sauron’s rise and fall in this era, and just like other famous prequels have struggled to keep up the tension and excitement, I feel that the same issue is already hampering The Rings of Power – at least to an extent. The fates of characters like Nori, Bronwyn, Arondir, and Halbrand are definitely up in the air and ripe for exploration, and I’m absolutely interested to see what comes next for them. But characters like Galadriel, Elrond, Celebrimbor, Durin, and Gil-Galad have their futures written.

Overall, though, the first pair of episodes did a good job at setting up this idea of a slowly-awakening evil; a gathering storm. We saw the slow build-up to the discovery of Sauron’s survival through Galadriel’s eyes, then saw how the Southlands are slowly being corrupted and attacked by Orcs in the stories of Bronwyn and Arondir. The proto-Hobbit Harfoots also had comments to make on the unusual goings-on in Middle-earth, and of course were present for the “falling star” that brought a character currently known as the Stranger into the story. The idea that the world is on the edge of some drastic changes, and that the ruling Elves are oblivious or perhaps wilfully blind to these problems was well-established and conveyed through these different storylines. The latter part – leaders ignoring or trying to downplay serious problems – feels rather timely at the moment, too!

The “shooting star.”

I definitely felt Galadriel’s frustration at being dismissed by Elrond and Gil-Galad, and I think that’s a testament to some strong performances from Morfydd Clark, Robert Aramayo, and Benjamin Walker. Though I called this setup a trope earlier, there’s no denying that it works in this context. The aloof presentation of the High Elves gives their leaders an arrogance that absolutely succeeded at getting me firmly on Galadriel’s side. While again this isn’t something that can be said to be unique to The Rings of Power (look at how the Vulcans are portrayed in Star Trek: Enterprise, for instance) it was pitch-perfect in the way it was deployed.

The sequences at sea with Galadriel, Halbrand, and (briefly) Halbrand’s companions were among the best in the premiere. I’m not certain how or where this was filmed, but the water was so incredibly realistic, managing to look like deep ocean instead of a shallow sea or pool – and this one visual cue did so much to ramp up the tension as the duo survived an attack by a sea monster. The dark water felt dangerous, not only because of what it was hiding but because deep water like that is usually only seen far from land. Look at how films like The Bounty use this same deep water effect to signal how isolated and far from safety characters are; The Rings of Power really did a great job here.

Galadriel and Halbarad’s raft.

And these scenes with Halbrand and Galadriel also took the story in somewhat of a different direction. Galadriel’s choice to swim back to Middle-earth could have been a simple one, perhaps even one that was resolved off-screen, but putting her in this “shipwrecked” situation was a definite change of pace for a character who had been on a mission.

The Harfoots’ camp recaptured at least some of the idealised, pastoral feel of the Shire in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Showing how the Harfoots live in a temporary camp, migrating with the seasons, was a neat addition that made it feel even older, somehow – like some depictions of Native Americans prior to European colonisation.

The Harfoots’ encampment.

Within that framework we got the traditionalist Harfoots to contrast with the more adventurous Nori; her story was set up well enough by leading some of the camp’s children to a berry bush, but I didn’t feel that the danger posed by a wolf was properly paid off – though I suppose it’s something that could be revisited in later episodes, the wolf’s presence was very brief and although it did feel like a threat to the diminutive Harfoots, it seemed to be rushed past and quickly forgotten by a story that had other priorities.

Nori’s relationship with the Stranger is still something that The Rings of Power is building up – beautifully, in my view. Her care for this mysterious giant who fell from the sky humanises her and takes her from being a somewhat rebellious child to someone that I’m sure we’ll be able to get behind as the story progresses. Although I’m sure there’s a lot of speculation as to the identity of the Stranger, I felt that the impact crater and fire seemed to resemble an eye – and a flaming eye definitely carries with it memories of a certain Dark Lord!

Am I overreaching, or does this look like “a lidless eye wreathed in flame” to you?

Of all the settings we’ve seen so far in The Rings of Power, none felt quite so familiar as the Dwarves’ mountain home of Khazad-dûm. We’d spent a lot of time with Dwarven mines in The Lord of the Rings and particularly in The Hobbit trilogy, and The Rings of Power seems to borrow heavily from those projects in practically every way. From the design of the Dwarves themselves all the way to the aesthetic of their subterranean kingdom, The Rings of Power really succeeded at recapturing how the Dwarves have been presented in the past.

It was also in Khazad-dûm that I felt The Rings of Power beginning some of its more delicate and character-driven storylines. Stories focusing on Arondir and Galadriel feel epic in scale because of their focus on this growing darkness and the impact it will have on Middle-earth, but the conflict between Elrond and Prince Durin brought The Rings of Power back down to an understandable level. Durin was upset that Elrond, a long-lived Elf, had simply disappeared from his life for such a long time – and it took Elrond a moment to fully grasp that. For me at least, this became one of the best and certainly most-relatable storylines in the opening pair of episodes.

Elrond and Durin’s falling-out went a long way to bringing the story of The Rings of Power down to a relatable level.

The Rings of Power is off to a good start – but not a great one. Visually, the series is well-made. It borrows from The Lord of the Rings in many ways, but it also incorporates new design elements that help it feel distinct; part of the same world, but not a carbon copy of what came before. There were definitely some issues with the soundtrack and sound mixing that shouldn’t be present in a series that aims to compete at this level, and that’s something I hope can be addressed promptly. There have been some wonderful moments of characterisation that really pulled me in… and a handful of others that weren’t quite reaching that same high bar. Overall, I’d say that the series has left a good first impression and I’m happy to return to it next week to pick up the story. But I’m unlikely to be spending much time between now and then speculating, theory-crafting, or even really just thinking about The Rings of Power very much.

Am I nitpicking too much or being too harsh on The Rings of Power? Well, that’s up to you to decide. But what I will say is this: The Rings of Power is the most expensive television series ever created, and that brings with it expectations in terms of quality that basic competence doesn’t cover. Moreover, as much as I want to judge The Rings of Power entirely on its own merits, by very deliberately leaning into The Lord of the Rings films, the show has invited comparisons to that trilogy – and other works in the high fantasy genre.

What’s going to happen next in The Rings of Power?

I’m glad that I gave The Rings of Power a fair shake and didn’t make a snap judgement. Although I can understand a certain amount of schadenfreude at wanting to see a massive corporation like Amazon meet with financial and critical failure, speaking for myself what I really want to see is another success in the high fantasy genre. I don’t want The Rings of Power to be disappointing – I want it to be entertaining! The first episodes, while they had some issues that I’ve tried to elaborate on, broadly speaking managed to entertain me, and I came away from them feeling satisfied with what I’d seen.

I’m hopeful that The Rings of Power now has a foundation upon which to build a successful series. With five seasons having been planned – and potentially somewhat of a soft reboot coming in Season 2 thanks to a change in filming locations – there’s a long story to get stuck into, one that, like Game of Thrones before it, will unfold over the next few years. There’s time for some of the production’s weaker elements to be addressed, even if it doesn’t happen this season. Whether The Rings of Power will still be talked about in the same breath as Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings by future audiences… well, that’s still an open question. But it feels as though all of the elements exist for this series to reach those high bars. I genuinely hope that it will.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is the copyright of Amazon Studios, New Line Cinema, and Amazon. The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and other works mentioned above 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.

The pros and cons of filming back-to-back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are advantages to back-to-back production.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where will the admiral and his crew go next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film #2:
Despicable Me (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game #1:
Control (2019)

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

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

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

Game #2:
Super Mario 64 (1996)

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

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

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

Game #3:
Red Dead Redemption II (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TV series #2:
Fortitude (2015-18)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that’s it.

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

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

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