Top 10 geek entertainment franchises

Top 10 geek entertainment franchises

From Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series to Dr Who, these are the moments when big business met geekdom.

Previous Top 10s have covered the best of tech geekery in the film, writing, game and other settings but we still felt there was something missing. While our earlier efforts have elicited a variety of passionate, and occasionally incoherent comments but we felt we'd missed a broader view. These days companies have realised they can make major money out of technology franchises and we thought that needed attention.

After all, the software industry has made its own the concept of a single product having multiple values. The entertainment industry got in the game, and the 1982 release of Tron was the first game that made more in auxiliary sales than in the film itself. Since then entertainment franchises have become big business and the rest is history.

As ever, all (sane) comments gratefully received.

Honourable mention: Asimov's Foundation series

Shaun Nichols: SF fans are going to absolutely hammer us for not having this higher up on the list, and perhaps they are right. Isaac Asimov's Foundation saga is considered by many to be one of the most influential series of books in the history of the genre.

The series began with a trilogy from Asimov in the earlier days of his career in the early 1950s. After taking a short break of oh, about 30 years, Asimov was talked into continuing the series and several more novels were written.

And the series wasn't just limited to Asimov. Many other contemporary writers have contributed to the series as well. If you also tie in Robot and Empire sagas, which are said to take place in the same fictional universe, you end up with more than a dozen of some of the best works of SF ever put to paper.

Iain Thomson: I would have liked to put this higher but Foundation was a book-only series, with no serious attempts to bring it to a wider audience.

That said it's a stunning body of work. What began as a few short stories ended up with a series of books based around Gibbon's classic 'Decline and Fall' looking at the way power shifts in a changing society. The initial books were written fifty years ago but still remain classics of the genre and are much-copied today.

Asimov returned to the series later in his life, I suspect largely for the money involved in following up his initial success. The latter books lacked the power of the originals but are still on the must read list for the aspiring geek.

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Honourable mention: Dr Who


Iain Thomson: As the Brit in the office I drew the short straw and got Doctor Who. Personally I hate the show, it shows all the set design skills of Blake's Seven without the excellent plot.

Yes, Tom Baker was very entertaining Dr Who, and the show kept an entire generation of British boys wishing for the attentions of Peri (or worryingly, for the mental health of the nation, Bonnie Langford.) The show went from bad to worse in the 1990s but was saved by the introduction of fanboy Russell Davies who, after graduating from Queer as Folk, bought a bit of modern thinking to Dr. Who.

More than one IT journalist has written scripts for the show and it still displays a great British theme to TV, doing special effects with no budget. An example of this is memory paper, which shows up on screen as a blank piece of paper but in the mind of the viewer is whatever they want to see. It's one of those classic British hacks to get around low budgets.

Shaun Nichols: Well, you don’t run for more than a quarter of a century unless you're doing something right. Personally I'm not much of a fan, but I imagine that had I grown up in the heyday of Dr. Who I would have much more of an appreciation for the show.

I think Dr. Who serves as a good example of the bias that each generation has in regards to media. What has campy appeal for one generation is just bizarre and incomprehensible for another, particularly when the special effects age as badly as those in Dr. Who.

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10. Halo

Iain Thomson: Personally I wanted Sid Mayer in this slot, since that bastard owes me about a year of my life in playng time. But Shaun had a killer point - without Halo there'd be no Xbox. it's a powerful argument because it's true.

Many people laughed at Microsoft's attempt to get into the computer games field. While PC games were the dominant standard for the computer industry the idea that Microsoft, a company notably lacking in fun, could be a credible force in the games industry was chucklesome at best. After all, Microsoft's only serious foray into the games industry thus far was Flight Simulator, which people were employed on just because Big Bill really liked flight sims.

Microsoft, like IBM before it, hired in outsiders at Bungee to do the deed. Halo was something of fan following that we'd only previously seen with Doom and Counterstike, but one that was aided but the same networking technology that other games had had, just backed up by Microsoft technology. Redmond funded one of the biggest clan marketing campaigns in history, and boy did it pay off.

Shaun Nichols: Halo is to gamers what the iPhone is to gadget freaks; every time a new one comes out people are going to line up for hours without ever having even played it or read reviews.

Part of that is due to the quality of previous titles. Bungie has delivered great games so many times that people just go ahead and assume that the next version of the game is going to be awesome.

Even before Microsoft purchased Bungie the buzz around Halo was remarkable. People were abuzz about the PC game that was supposedly going to blow everything else away. When Bungie was acquired there was concern that Microsoft would ruin the game. Thankfully Microsoft was smart enough to let the company do its thing.

While the Xbox had its issues, Halo was everything users expected and the Xbox had its first killer app.

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9. Terminator

Shaun Nichols: This one was a bit of a debate, we were stuck on either the Terminator series or a certain trilogy from the first part of the decade about people that live in a computer world and wear trenchcoats.

When it came down to it, we decided that the two great movies in the Terminator saga outweighed the one decent Matrix flick. That and the fact that the catch-phrase "I'll be back" is a million times cooler than "whoa, I know kung fu."

What I personally like about the first two Terminator movies was that they came in the days before everything was done with cheesy CGI graphics. Back in those days you had to do your special effects the old-fashioned way: by blowing up an entire city block.

While the storylines weren't exactly dead ringers for Arthur C. Clarke, they were fairly original and they were an excellent vehicle for the gratuitous gunfights and explosions that everyone paid to see.

Iain Thomson: Terminator gave the world a fear, the entertainment industry a very profitable franchise, and Arnold Schwarzenegger the governorship of the most important state in the union.

Shaun and I came to an agreement between gentlemen, before hostilities broke out, the the Terminator films, not the Matrix trilogy, earned the spot. After all, Terminator gave us two good films, not one.

The jury is still out on whether Christian Bale's performance in the final (one hopes) film will stand the test of time but I have my doubts. On the other hand the number of Terminator costumes at Halloween make this dead cert on the list. It's difficult to argue with a ruthless hero, great special effects and a number of kick-arse computer games.

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8. 2001

Iain Thomson: As regular readers will know my admiration for Arthur C Clarke knows few bounds but in truth I'd liked to have see this lower on the list based on his input. However, thanks to a collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, the franchise got shifted forward.

It's an invariable rule that if there's a film of a book, read the book first. Sadly, few readers were able to do this for the film of 2001: A Space Odyssey and as a result almost everyone left the theatre thinking WTF? In fact, the film is a superb synthesising of the storytelling arc of a novel within the time boundaries of film. The compression of the final segment is, to be honest, almost incomprehensible without the underlying novel to explain what's going on and that's a big weakness.

However, the success of the franchise ensured three more novels: 2010, in part an explanatory note to the first book and a surprisingly good film, and 2061 (shameless cash-in territory if truth be told). Clarke rounded the franchise off with possibly the best novel of his later years of his life, 3001. If that film is done correctly it will be a fitting tribute to one of the best scientific writers of the last century.

It's sometimes said that the most valuable thing we got out of the space programme was the blue marble picture, an image which highlighted the dreadfully small size of our planet in the distance of space. 2001 used that image, and the thinking behind it, to inspire a generation.

Shaun Nichols: I'm not a big fan of the 2010 movie sequel, truth be told. Obviously living up to the works of Kubrick is no small task, but the sequel came up painfully short of the original motion picture adaptation.

As with Asimov, it's hard to narrow down just one series of works as the best, but the 2001 saga gets the nod in my mind because it has aged so well. The same stories could be written today with only minor changes and would still be huge hits.

It's a bit depressing that we are now past not only 2001, but 2010 as well and we're yet to have even a sniff of the sort of technology Clarke foresaw. As a passionate supporter of space travel Clarke no doubt was,and would still be, disheartened by the recent decisions to scale back on space exploration.

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7. Warcraft series


Shaun Nichols: I guess we're cheating a bit here as we're lumping in WarCraft, StarCraft and the World of Warcraft MMORPG. With the exception of World of WarCraft, the games are all real-time strategic combat games.

There's no denying the success that the franchise has had, however. The WarCraft/StarCraft games have been long-running favourites amongst PC gamers in particular. The games shattered sales records and were among the most popular online multiplayer games for years.

The real gem of the bunch, however, is World of WarCraft. The game has become by far the best-known MMORPG on the planet and has essentially created its own sub-culture where players form close-knit communities and share their real-world lives with one another.

Iain Thomson: I first got worried about this game when I discovered a journalist in our employ was playing it for hours at a time back to back with his girlfriend, a woman of marvellous pulchritude. Anything that could distract him from her charms was a dangerous technology indeed.

There's an extent to which games can become too powerful, and I think WOW has exceeded it. Sure, the franchise was a bit of fun at the outset but the extent to which it has taken up hold on the game playing community is a little creepy. People live and die by this game. They spend hours each day playing it and that's never a good thing.

All credit to the game's designers for the addictiveness of their creation, and the extent to which they have made the came open to all, but it's a worrying trend.

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6. Red Dwarf

Iain Thomson: Shortly after I sent Shaun a particularly fine YouTube clip of red Dwarf he came into work late, and looking like death warmed over.

"This is your fault; series two of Dwarf just came on Netflix." It didn't save him from punishment but as excuses go it's an easy one to understand.

Red Dwarf is the invention of two British comedy writers and it shows all the way. As such the series, books, revival show and spin-off's haven't been as great as some other shows but among fans there's a fanaticism that borders on the fetishistic.

It has to be said most Red Dwarf fans are men. Two blokes, a mechanoid and a highly evolved male cat make it a vary blokey show and the persistent humour in the word smeg is also fairly male. But the well done piss-taking of popular SF themes is something the show did beautifully. Shaun and I remain 'Boys from the Dwarf'.

Shaun Nichols: If you ever want to play a particularly nasty prank on a friend or co-worker, force them to watch a clip of the "Rimmer Song," a Red Dwarf classic and one of the most infectious tunes ever written.

Red Dwarf is rare in being an SF sitcom. Where so many shows take themselves so seriously, Red Dwarf dropped any hints of pretension and just made viewers laugh. The jokes were a bit low-brow at times, but the characters were all so likeable that it didn't bother you.

That's not to say the show didn't dip its toes into significantly geeky waters at times. Concepts such as cryogenics, artificial intelligence and time travel all played central roles. The show even delved into quantum physics and theories of alternate universes, with hilarious results, when the ship's crew encountered "Ace" Rimmer.

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5. Alien

Shaun Nichols: At a time when both horror and SF movies were pegged as poorly-written low-budget vehicles for excessive gore and gratuitous nudity, Alien was able to break the mold and offer a well-crafted film that was cool, thought-provoking and absolutely terrifying all at once.

Several years later James Cameron was able to accomplish the rare feat of producing a sequel that matched [better in my opinion- Iain] the original. The follow-up Aliens kept the dark, dank style of the original film and multiplied it by several hundred face-sucking acid-bleeding killer insectoids.

Like the Terminator series, the Alien franchise is more known for its action sequences and special effects than its intriguing storyline, though I think the screenplay in the Alien series is underrated. I recall one college cinematography class in which the professor got downright Freudian in his analysis, suggesting that the female nature of the Alien monsters (incubating and gestating babies) was very much a revolution at a time where most horror monsters were looming males with very 'phallic' weapons like chainsaws and large knives.

Iain Thomson: What started, according to some accounts, as a bad acid trip ended up as some of the most scary cinema ever invented.

The Alien franchise started as a simple film but grew to be much, much more. There have been college theses written about the female symbolism of the alien queen, a movie tie in with the Predator storyline and even now the sight of a spittle-covered elongated head from Geiger's worst nightmares sets people of a certain age into horrible thoughts that haunt our dreams.

The first Alien film was a horror/suspense film, the second one of the best action films of the decade, the third is best forgotten and the fourth one gave a Gallic dark twist courtesy of the genius that is Jean-Pierre Jeunet. While I suspect future generations may not be as frightened by the films there effect will last for a long time.

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4. Will Wright

Iain Thomson: I like the fact that Wright is on the list because most of his input has been towards making computer games something for building things up rather than tearing them down.

Wright was the creator of SimCity and its future generations, games that really focussed on building good things. It's an easy jibe, but a true one, that most computer games are built around the concept of "If it moves, shoot it. If it doesn't, shoot it until it does." Wright's work took that focussed energy and moving it to building things - first cities and then people.

Wright's attempt to tie his entire history of computer games into the Spore release was understandable but looks like a hubris-inspired mistake. We wait to see what comes out of him next.

Shaun Nichols: I grew up in that uncomfortable era when companies were pushing educational software to schools, but they hadn't yet figured out that 'educational' didn't have to mean 'boring.' Other than the occasional Ted Nugent buffalo hunting trip in Oregon Trail, the most entertaining thing we did with educational games was poke stuff in the disk drive until it started making funny sounds.

Then when I was in 3rd grade or so, a friend showed me Sim City. As with any great game, we played it for hours without even realising we were learning anything. Needless to say, my mother was more than a bit surprised when I came home and asked her about zoning laws and power grids.

Even more impressive is that nearly 20 years later, it's still fun to fire up an emulator and replay SimCity and other Will Wright games. That is the hallmark of a great game; easy enough for young children to learn and deep enough for adults to still enjoy. Wright is the master at that.

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3. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Shaun Nichols: I had to convince Iain on this one, as I imagine I will have to convince many readers. After all, how can one book be considered a franchise?

The real success of Douglas Adams' crowning work has been its ability to translate to different mediums. It was a hit as a radio programme, it was a hit as a book, it was a hit as a television series and it was a hit as a movie. Decade after decade, medium after medium, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy keeps showing up, and it's still a success.

Some argue that HHGTTG is less a work of science fiction than it is a piece of humorous satire. I'd suggest that many great works of SF are more or less thinly-veiled commentaries on modern society and human nature (Starship Troopers, anyone?) Adams was just a bit sillier about it than others.

Iain Thomson: Adams was sillier, but also smarter. If you delve deep into the HHGTTG series there is a lot of very intelligent stuff in there. Aspiring science fiction writers should read his passages on the feasibility of telepathic civilisations and the likelihood of them living in peace and harmony once everyone else knows what people are thinking as a classic example of dreams meeting reality.

Adams is a hero to journalists for his attitudes to deadlines - "I love them, " he said, "particularly the sound of them flying by..." His books were invariable late and it shows in some, but the ideas are universally brilliant. That said, he should have stopped at book three in my opinion but it's difficult to read an Adams novel and not just luxuriate in the joy of his wordage.

There have been numerous attempts to film the books, first with an ill-advised BBC serial and then in a Hollywood film that took shocking liberties with the storyline but had the saving grace of casting the delectable Zooey Deschanel as Trillian. Future generations may wonder what the fuss is about but we can point them to the first book and tell them "This is genius in distilled form - use it wisely."


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2. Star Wars

Iain Thomson: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away two IT geeks argued long and hard over the position of Star Wars. Shaun suggested the number one spot for this franchise but I drew the line, if only because of Jar Jar Binks - and I'm not alone on that one.

Joking aside however Star Wars is a mega-franchise, covering six films (with another three possibly to come), innumerable books, comics and spin offs to boot. Every year thousands argue over whether Han shot first, hundreds of thousands dress up and go to conventions, and millions more occasionally dream of lands where lightsabres, galactic civilisations and advanced robots are the norm.

On a personal note Star Wars came out days after my eighth birthday and Mum's idea of a group trip to the cinema was utterly inspired. The first film was mesmerising in its special effects, 'Empire Strikes Back' was a masterpiece and ended on a complete downer that left us guessing for a year before the final part of the trilogy. In many ways the initial Star Wars films invented the idea of a modern mass market around a film, with action figure, video games and spin-offs aplenty.

Then it all went sour. Many of the people on this list have overextended their franchise. The following three films were a disappointment; indeed how could they not be considering what had gone before. I'm told that if you watch the first six films in order things made a lot more sense stylistically but I'm sorry, I haven't the heart to.

Shaun Nichols: I personally preferred Star Wars, but it was hard to argue against the long-term success of our number one franchise.

I think just about every boy (and more than a few girls as well) remembers where he was the first time he saw Star Wars. The movie had just about everything a kid could want: spaceships, sword fights, talking robots, explosions, Carrie Fisher…

But special effects aside, Lucas created an incredible story. Granted it owes as much to Greek mythology (Oedipus, The Odyssey) as it does any classic works of SF, but the underlying narrative is incredibly engrossing on its own.

We won't talk much about the later trilogy, though I have to say the later two weren't so bad, and seeing Hayden Christensen get dismembered was definitely worth the price of a ticket.

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1. Star Trek

Shaun Nichols: It's hard to argue with any franchise that has its own convention circuit, not to mention its own full language.

Star Trek has managed to not only create its own rabid subculture, but one that has endured for more than half a century. And on top of all that, the 'Trekkies' may just be the most rabid of any SF subculture. The lengths to which Star Trek fans will go to show their love for the series is at times frightening.

On top of the crazy fans, the franchise has a laundry list of successful releases. With eleven hit films and five different television series, the brand itself has been a huge hit on both the big and small screen alike.

Ironically, the original Star Trek series was cancelled after only a couple of seasons and had to etch out its place in history through syndication. The NBC executive who cancelled it deserves a place in history right up there with the record executives who passed on the Beatles.

Iain Thomson: While very drunk at Douglas Adams' memorial party (hosted by the ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha society) I uttered a guilty secret - I think the first series of Star Trek is rubbish. It turns out I was not alone.

That said the influence of Star Trek is undeniable. The show broke many boundaries in TV, not just for being good SF but also for the first black female character on mainstream TV, along with references to drugs and homosexuality that were way ahead of their time.

It was ground-breaking, and then followed up by some excellent spin-offs such as Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. It also inspired the excellent Galaxy Quest film, which was both an homage and a skilled skewering of the genre.

In terms of it's influence Star Trek is huge. It basically underwrote the highly dodgy area of slash fiction (not to be delved into unless you have a strong stomach), created a language, Klingon, that is now more spoken that certain Native American tongues and has had eleven films based on the franchise - which, until the last one, created an iron law that every odd numbered film was rubbish.

Speaking of the films the reboot of the franchise was a masterstroke, a brilliant bit of cinema marred only by a few logical faults (see the older Spock plotline and red matter storylines for details), but still a classic I've rewatched many times already.

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