For the more expansive cinematic universes out there, it's not always this simple. When you start including multiple releases of television shows and movies spread out over many years, it's not always obvious what an optimal way to watch might be. The biggest example of this might be the Star Trek saga. With five television series (six if you count the animated one) and 12 movies, it can be quite a challenge to binge the lot in a comprehensible order.
For this post, I'm not going to suggest which order one should watch. Many others on the web have done so: search for "[series name] watching order" for most any expansive series and you'll get several often contradictory hits. Rather, I'm going to lay out some of the options to help in guiding the path.
Release OrderThis is perhaps the simplest and often the best order. Simply order the shows in the order that they were released, start with the oldest and finish with the latest. Often this order follows the creator's plan, as it's reasonable to think that shows are broadcast in an intended order, and not just randomly. However, there are certain series where this is not optimal:
- Firefly: the network did quite a number on the initial broadcast, perhaps helping in the show's early demise. DVD and streaming releases put the show back into a more coherent order.
- Star Trek: the later TOS movies were released during the run of TNG. It might make for a better watching experience to watch those first along with the earlier movies.
A second option is to watch the shows in the order that they were produced. For most shows this usually mirrors release order fairly closely, but there can be exceptions. An episode of Supergirl was postponed a week because the subject matter mirrored real world news a little too closely; further removed from the incident it might make more sense to put it back in regular production order.
- Star Trek: TOS is probably best viewed in production order, especially in the first season. This places the first and second pilots ("The Cage" and "Where No Man Has Gone Before") first and second, rather than sixth and 80th (!).
Chronological Order (Strict)Strict chronological order is just about the worst way to watch a cinematic universe. Done properly, this requires one to date and sequence every scene from every episode, placing flashbacks and flashforwards at their respective locations in the timeline without regard for storytelling. It's a difficult and time consuming process that is ultimately unrewarding.
- DIrishB has put together an incredibly detailed timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While it's a great reference, to attempt to actually watch the MCU in this order would be foolhardy.
Chronological Order (Loose)
A bit more coherent attempt at a chronological watching is to loosely order episodes, series, or movies. It's less "this event happened on May 6, 2016" and more "this episode comes before that episode", without regard for flashbacks or Memento-style storytelling. If a universe has been going on for many years and in many incarnations, a loose chronological watching can provide new insights beyond release order.
- The sadly defunct Star Trek Chronology Project does a great job taking all filmed Star Trek and ordering it chronologically. In particular the care they take with the numerous time travel episodes makes their order compelling. I hope they return when the new 2017 Star Trek series starts broadcasting.
Sometimes the creator of a show will say or post something that says "Watch my show this way." On first thought this should end the discussion; if the person who made it says to watch it a certain way, then that's how it should be done. However, this is problematic as creators rarely comment on these sort of things, and to be honest, many haven't thought it through as intensely as their fans have.
- Crusade (Babylon 5 spinoff): J. Michael Straczynski has published an order for this show, but in the actual viewing it's fairly nonsensical. Crusade in particular is fairly difficult to order: it was broadcast out of order by its network, word-of-god doesn't really make sense, production order isn't much better, and it's a bit difficult to determine a chronological ordering. Grey Sector has analyzed the series and its various orderings; read his analysis here.
Curated Watching OrderA curated order is where a fan analyzes a universe and determines a watching order that allows the viewer to best experience the universe as the story unfolds. Aspects such as release dates and timelines are considered, but ultimately the end result is designed for optimal viewing. These orderings can be very subjective based on the opinions and personalities of the curator, and so in this regard there isn't a "correct" order.
- ThunderPeel2001 does a great job curating a Battlestar Galactica Viewing Order for the 2003 reimagined series.
- Perhaps the most famous curated watching order is the "Machete" order for Star Wars. This one is especially significant in that it is not by release nor chronological order, and even discards some content in favor of a better storytelling experience.