The Expanse’s final episode aired yesterday and it was a great end to a decent week, so I decided to do a reprise of last year’s take on the stuff that struck my fancy throughout the intervening year, even if there’s a little less to write about this time.
Of course I have to kick this post off with The Expanse, which despite streaming only a few episodes of its last season in 2021, was by far the best thing I watched all year (certainly also throughout the entire pandemic, and possibly the most polished “hard” Sci-Fi series ever).
This is also due to my having decided to re-watch the entire series with my kids in time to catch up with Season 6 (which was a great family experience), and partly because the acting and plot just kept taking things up another notch season after season after season1.
And I should point out that I’ve seldom gone and deliberately re-watched TV series at all, especially while they’re still running, but this year we also started re-watching Galactica (the 2004 version, not the original, campy one) to see how it stacked up, and it holds up well2.
The key ingredient for me is that The Expanse is built atop a set of solid, realistic plot devices (even as Sci-Fi goes, there is only one thing that goes beyond conventional physics) and complex but very relatable characters. The books were great, but the series and the nuanced way it was put together (plus an amount of polish and intricate little details that is sure to withstand multiple rewatches) are sure to leave an indelible impression on the genre.
Bottom line: it is probably the best “hard” Sci-Fi series ever, neatly trimmed off with a good (if somewhat short and rushed) final season at a point where they can resume the story arc later if they can find someone to foot the bill (which I hope happens).
I can see it going the way of Firefly and turning into a couple of movies, or just coming back to pick up the story arc a few years from now, but if neither of those things happen, it was still amazing.
The runner-up for me enjoyment-wise has got to be Ted Lasso, which was hands down the most fun, witty and more than wholesome (if occasionally spicy and barbed) entertainment value out of Apple TV+. If you haven’t watched it because you don’t like football (or sports), you’re completely missing the point.
Finally, Station Eleven made my top three because it completely snuck up on me despite everything being against it. After all, the grueling, bloody travails of a wandering troupe of Shakespearean actors in a post-apocalyptic, post-pandemic world based on a book I nearly put aside3 last year were not something I expected to enjoy watching.
But, amazingly, it works, and the flashbacks/timelines (all of which span the lead’s lifetime, so no real science fiction here either) turn it into a nice weave of converging plot lines that is even better than the book was for me.
Take with a pinch of salt, but do have a taste to see if it’s your thing.
Another surprise was Arcane, which I mentioned briefly a little while ago. Visually gorgeous, packing so much detail and polished motion into each scene that I was tempted to go frame-by-frame sometimes, and with more than enough character depth (and a nice cliff-hanger) that I’m looking forward to a second season.
Again, never mind that it’s set in the League of Legends universe. That might narrow some characters’ roles a bit or color portions of the backstory or spoil future outcomes, but you can watch the entire thing (like I did) without knowing or caring anything about the game, and still come out enjoying the entire thing.
And then there’s “everything else”: Good, but not life-changing or especially memorable.
For instance, Loki was a nice bit of fun after the surrealism of WandaVision, and I would very much like to see another season of the former (but am not holding my breath). Foundation, for instance, was… OK, although it comes across as if someone cribbed a digest out of the book’s ancillary plot lines, sacrificed a few character’s original genders at the altar of wokeness and crafted an entire alternate timeline while holding down the fast-forward button.
But on the whole, it holds up, and the emperor’s peculiar “family” definitely works as a plot device, so that’s… fine.
Wrapping up what I watched in 2021, The Silent Sea deserves an honorable mention at the very least. I also watched Squid Game but didn’t really enjoy it much, whereas The Silent Sea had some great moments even if it required a bit more suspension of disbelief than usual, and if you have a penchant for languages I would recommend watching the original Korean4 instead of the dubbed version.
Then there’s the stuff I sort of started watching this year that I can’t really fathom, like The Book of Boba Fett (which is clearly a few pegs below The Mandalorian and raises the question of whether Disney going to milk Star Wars IP just for the sake of it).
If I don’t mention it next year, that will be telling, I guess.
For obvious reasons, movie theaters weren’t a popular destination over the past couple of years, so thank goodness for streaming services.
That said, No Time To Die struck me as a very satisfying, entirely befitting capstone to both Daniel Craig’s tenure and James Bond’s life story, and Black Widow was pretty much OK as far as Marvel movies go (Eternals, which I technically watched this year, is intriguing, but there is no way Warner is getting a big story arc out of it), so to be honest I didn’t catch anything more satisfying or remarkable than good old, reliable
Well, except Dune, but that’s a matter of taste, and I don’t think of it as complete yet as even though having amazing visuals that are a welcome change from Lynch’s overwrought style, which I liked because the visuals signaled a lot of the attitude behind some characters. Villeneuve’s just didn’t convey enough of the plot for me to consider it done, which is kind of sad.
I’ve yet to watch the new Matrix movie, too, but I’m keeping my expectations low.
As usual, I mostly read Sci-Fi throughout the year, typically in the late evenings to unwind. But I also got in a few unusual books this year as I was both reminiscing and assessing fields I might want to work in.
Here’s a few highlights:
- Leviathan Falls was one of the most satisfying conclusions to a book series I’ve read in a while, and neatly wrapped The Expanse plot lines in a way that leaves more than enough leeway for more TV/movie adaptations (the nine books span a lot more time than the six TV seasons).
- Project Hail Mary did not disappoint. Like [The Martian], it was tragic, inspired, unlikely and humorous in parts, but original
- The Murderbot Diaries Series was a lot of fun, at least if you enjoy the inner monologue of an unintentionally murderous android that enjoys soap operas, and I read a few more installments this year.
- Charles Stross ought to be part of every Sci-Fi fan’s balanced intake, and even though I’ve yet to really delve into some of the Lovecraftian horrors he published recently, I did enjoy Invisible Sun, which also capped off a story arc rather neatly.
Then, like before, there’s the other stuff. I picked up Operation Elop to backfill a gap in my understanding of the Windows Phone saga and why Symbian floundered (two things I tracked closely while I was at Vodafone prior to my BlackBerry/iPhone years).
It was fascinating to think back to all the Nokia handsets I tested and how the issues we had getting various hardware and firmware releases went in lockstep with what is in the book, and how Nokia was completely unprepared (culturally, at least, if not HR-wise…) to deal with the new smartphone landscape.
Flash Boys and Dark Pools were the salient bits in a (still ongoing) dive into the rabbit hole of high-frequency trading, which I am following up with a few books on (and for) quants.
Not that I expect to do a lot of trading (and I most certainly wouldn’t waste more time on crypto beyond exploration), but I find the technical and business challenges quite interesting.
Since I’m now watching more TV series in the evenings with my kids and have had later and later meetings, I found myself backpedaling on YouTube consumption.
Part of that is due to my finding their recommendation algorithm atrocious, but I am still subscribing to mostly the same channels there (just watching them less often).
The only relevant changes are that I have folded in some gaming and PC building channels to keep tabs on the mess that the GPU supply chain has turned into, and am vastly amused by how people like Jeff Geerling are building a following out of publicly tinkering with Raspberry Pis.
Gaming-wise, there is little to say, but I suspect there might be more to write about that next year since I’ve been mulling getting a new console…
I’m pretty sure everyone noticed, at least subconsciously, that Shohreh Aghdashloo/Chrisjen Avasarala’s outfits went through a sort of gradual crescendo up until the her final scene, plus the way female roles were written and played out above and beyond the usual angle of just tacking them on to pay lip service to diversity and inclusion. ↩︎
Plus it was fun to notice at least one Galactica-related Easter Egg (a mention of Kara Thrace) in the final episode of The Expanse, but that is a delightful little rabbit hole I won’t go into today as this post is getting too long already. ↩︎
I really did not enjoy the book, since it was a bit too depressing to read during the height of the pandemic and had statistically zero science fiction throughout. Not actually sure I finished it, too, since I don’t remember if the ending matched the series’. ↩︎
Subtitles are so much better, especially when you start picking up common expressions… I can’t understand why people watch dubbed versions. ↩︎