Review: The Shannara Chronicles (MTV, 2016)
[Mild spoilers for the first episode]
Aiming for the scale and beauty of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings filmic adaptations, MTV’s Shannara comes surprisingly close on a TV budget but still has a ways to go. Youthful energy, modern dialogue and a fascinating world, Shannara is a colourful, epic, quest fantasy that will appeal to those tired with the unrelenting grimness of Game of Thrones but who are not completely familiar with the tropes of the genre.
The first Shannara novel, The Sword of Shannara (1977), was much criticised for its similarity to Tolkien’s famous trilogy, but, just like Star Wars (1977), it captured public imagination by ‘borrowing’ liberally from its predecessors and repackaging the stories and characters into a palatable form for mass consumption. But it was with the second novel, The Elfstones of Shannara (1982) that Brooks began to truly develop his own, unique, epic fantasy, and it is this novel that forms the basis of the television series, The Shannara Chronicles.
For those unfamiliar with the books, the series is set a couple of thousand years after an apocalyptic war wiped out most of humanity and led to humans evolving into divergent species or trolls, gnomes and dwarves. Elves reappeared, magic returned, and the Pacific Northwest became the Four Lands; Northland for the Trolls, Westland for the Elves, Southland for the Humans, and Eastland for the Gnomes and Dwarves (who get a bit of a raw deal really). Oh, and there are demons too. A minor problem with the show is that the ‘world’ of the Four Lands, a least as it has been explored thus far, seems to be only a few miles wide as characters can easily travel by foot or horse from one part to the other in an extremely short time. It becomes hard to sell ‘epic’ when you imagine the setting to be about the size of a large national park even when cinematic shots of sweeping vistas are dropped in. It may very well be that the true size of the setting will be explored later on, but I got the distinct impression that everywhere was within a two day ride. Either that or the characters happened to have amazing luck in finding each other over vast distances and possessed magically fast horses. But these coincidences and meet cutes are so common to film and television that it can almost be forgiven.
The opening credits sequence is a wonderful blend of a James Bond opening sequence, potted-history of the fantasy-world, and blends stirring and disturbing in equal measure. What is startling are the stark references to the apocalypse that led to the formation of the world of The Shannara Chronicles. If you are unfamiliar with the setting then it can be a little strange. It is both wonderful and jarring to see the post-apocalyptic world being referenced in a fairly well realised fantasy-scape. Ruins of cars, helicopters, and oil-tankers lie strewn across evocative landscapes more commonly associated with Jackson’s panoramic shots in the Lord of the Rings films. There is an odd cognitive dissonance created that both makes the world more immersive and unique, but also wrenches you out of the narrative as you wonder why some of the wrecks look only a few hundred years old at most. In fact, another issue with the setting is that most things are too pretty. Because of Game of Thrones we have grown used to worn, lived-in settings that have dirt, scratches, and faded livery. Most of the sets in Shannara look a little too new, a mite too clean, and a fraction too fresh. When this is combined with the occasional obvious CGI effect, the depth and authenticity of the world is called into doubt. Given that belief in the world is key to belief in the story, this poses something of a problem for the series. If you can’t take the world seriously, then you will find it that much harder to suspend your disbelief in regards to the story and the consequences.
[As a quick note, I have only seen the first two episodes, so this is a preliminary review, and the series may develop a bit differently over the coming weeks.]
The series opens with the introduction of the key characters, reveals the threat to the world, and, in short, sets up all the pieces to get the quest to save the world off to a rollicking start. In keeping with the Elvish focus of this story, the majority of the cast are youthful and very pretty. The two central heroes, Princess Amberle Elessedil and Wil Ohmsford, played by Poppy Drayton and Austin Butler respectively, are the young, naïve protagonists fated to save the world from the evil machinations of the demonic Dagda Mor (Jed Brophy). They are guided by the stern Druid Allanon (Manu Bennett), who is the last of his kind and who adds some much needed gravitas and experience to the group. They are also both hampered and aided by the rogue, Eretria (Ivana Baquero), a woman trying to escape the control of her family, a clan of Rovers (thieves). There is also a parallel storyline, interwoven with the quest, concerning the intrigue in the Elvish Royal palace as they prepare for a war that only some believe is coming, and with the various princes vying for power, influence, and glory [presumably this becomes much more important in the later episodes that I have yet to see].
While on the subject of the cast, there is a bit of a problem with the lack of diversity, and I not talking about the abundance of actors whose surnames begin with ‘B’. While the landscape of The Shannara Chronicles is rendered in a glorious spectrum of colour, the main cast is a bit on the pale side. Given the source material I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse Shannara of white-washing, but I couldn’t help feeling that the series missed an opportunity to create a more ethnically diverse cast. After all it is set in a far future version of Earth, so some of our diversity must have survived. I may have missed some actors but as far as I could tell there were only about three or four actors of colour in the first two episodes. This may not be a problem for some, but in this day and age, and in depicting a far future world, I had hoped to see something a little more representative.
[If I am mistaken then I whole-hearted apologise. I have only had a chance to see the first two episodes once so can’t double check at the minute.]
On the upside, there are two female leads. So there is that. Speaking of which, Drayton’s Amberle is a conscientious, but slightly headstrong, princess who refuses to accept her place in Elven society. Drayton looks the part of a beautiful Elvish princess, but despite initially being presented as more than capable of rescuing herself spends much of the two episodes finding herself in the role of target or victim. Amberle [or Elvish Leia] ends up the sole survivor of a massacre and thus the world’s only hope to defeat the rising evil. Drayton manages to convey the athletic aspects of Amberle’s character, her martial prowess and quickness, with grace and confidence, but seems less confident in the moments when emotion needs to be conveyed. The aloof arrogance of the Elves as a character trait makes it hard to judge whether her stiffness is deliberate. I am looking forward to seeing her settle into the role and develop the range that Amberle requires over the course of the story.
Butler’s Wil is a far more stereotypical fantasy hero, right down to the blonde hair, blue eyes, orphan status, mysterious lineage, magical heirloom, and childhood in a rural backwater. Half-Elf Luke is informed by the mysterious druid Allanon [Fantasy Obi Wan] that he is the last of the Shannaras and has a legacy of magic to grow into and live up to. Not only that, but that they have to go on a quest to rescue Elvish Leia and protect her from the Dagda Mor [Demon Vader]. The first thing that struck me about Butler was a strange resemblance to a young Brad Pitt. He plays Wil with an endearing earnestness, and a touch of teenage smugness and disdain. His disbelief concerning magic, his lineage, and the quest in front of him is a refreshing change from the accepting idiocy of many a fantasy hero who has graced our screens. However, some might find the elf-ear jokes and innuendoes a little tiresome rather quickly. Like Drayton, it may be that Butler simply needs a little more time to settle into the role to be able to demonstrate a more nuanced range than the first episodes gave him leave to do.
Of all the main characters I have to admit that I loved Manu Bennett’s Allanon. His growly delivery and physical presence on the screen gives weight to the character, and he seems to be able to effortlessly convey an ancient fatigue, coupled with a sense of duty and irritable wisdom. By far and away the most watchable of the cast and the one person who holds the story together and makes you want to believe in it. This is aided by the make-up and costuming department. The strange, ritualistic runic scars across his skin in addition to his scarred hand give a palpable sense of his complicated back-story, and the hint that it wasn’t pleasant to train as a druid. In fact, Bennett really sells the weight and cost of working magic in this world that could so easily have become hand-wavy and silly. No ‘expelliarmus’ or wimpy wand waving for him. In one notable scene Bennett practically wrestles the magic to perform the effect that he desires, and the drained exhaustion he then exhibits ably answers why you don’t use magic to solve every little problem, like finding your keys.
Female Han Solo, or Eretria, doesn’t have that much to do in the first two episodes, but it should come as no surprise that Ivano Baquero is a joy to watch on screen. She plays the rogue with such confidence and aplomb that it is hard to reconcile it with her role in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). She slips from effortlessly gulling one character with a seductive routine, to a scene in which she portrays an outward bravado while simultaneously projecting inner fear and doubt. She also displays a seemingly natural chemistry with all of her co-stars and a confidence in her role and dialogue that some of the other actors appear to struggle a little with. In fact, it is perhaps because of the strength of Bacquero’s performance that the other young actors seem a little out of their depth.
This brings us to the Darth Vader of the piece, the Dagda Mor. With Shannara being filmed in New Zealand, and the story having more than a shade of Tolkien about it, it seems terribly unfortunate that the ‘look’ for the Dagda Mor is uncomfortably similar to an Orc from Jackson’s LotR trilogy. They are eerily similar. I say unfortunately because it appears that they stole one of the Orc costumes from Jackson’s prop department rather than create a truly unique look for their villain. On the other hand, at least he doesn’t look like a Star Wars villain. Despite this, Brophy conveys real menace and sinister malevolence in his scenes. He drips a hateful evil without hamming it up, and, despite the fact that others might cry ‘stereotypical evil overlord’ it really is refreshing to see a truly evil, irredeemable villain on the screen, in opposition to the forces of good. But he is a villain whose desire to destroy the world doesn’t seem contrived or random, he simply hates the lot of them. Both Brophy and Bennett manage to make the ‘ancient magical’ language sound authentic, and they deliver their lines naturally lending a great deal of credibility to the enterprise.
Actually, many of the comparisons above are unfair. It is just unfortunate that Shannara premièred so closely to the relaunched Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and so it seems that the comparisons will be hard to ignore. Given the age of the source material, its development in parallel with Lucas’ film series, and the overlapping influences on both sets of narratives, such similarities might well have been inevitable, but that doesn’t stop them being there, and it doesn’t really excuse the producers from their failure to disguise them. However, fans went in their droves to see the new Star Wars despite its lack of originality, so perhaps this won’t be as major an issue for Shannara as it might have been.
For those that think that Shannara is cliché-ridden and stereotypical, you might want to consider how many of these clichés are in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, an ostensibly original story developed in the 21st century and whose fans have defended its lack of originality of many fronts. At least Shannara comes from much older source material and is somewhat constrained in how much it can change and adapt to the modern audience.
So while many might complain that Shannara is a walking compilation of old-fashioned fantasy tropes, I doubt that the intended audiences will think so [see above note about The Force Awakens]. Let’s take the fans that grew up on Brooks’ series. If they loved the books and still have a warm place in their heart for them then this is their chance to see the books on screen, to see the scenes from the pages of their childhoods enacted in gloriously live-action technicolour. They want to feast their eyes on the landscape of their imaginations come to life. Fans of the books are not likely to be disappointed in the area of ‘originality’ because they are already intimately familiar with the story, characters and series, so all those issues become irrelevant. They won’t care a jot about the story and characters resembling other series, they will just want to see their Amberle and Wil rushing around to save the world. They may have complaints about CGI effects, very modern sounding dialogue, and a slightly teen-focused vibe coming from the series, but not ‘originality’.
In terms of other audiences then, it seems that MTV is aiming this series squarely at the Harry Potter generation, those more familiar with the film versions of Eragon (2006) and Percy Jackson (2010) than printed classic fantasy like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954). While many older fans might complain about the youthfulness of the actors, their general prettiness and lack of grit, and the fantasy clichés that pop up in an all too familiar story, younger fans may not be quite so well versed in the history of fantasy. Given that previous attempts to bring fantasy to the small screen have included the campy Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995) and Xena: Warrior Princess (1995), the pretty dire and misogynist Legend of the Seeker (2008), and the über-dark Game of Thrones (2011), Shannara will come across as something slightly different. A youth focused, fun, action-filled epic, but without the camp. Good versus evil, but without rapey undertones. Pretty people romping around a brightly lit fantasy world as opposed to the depressing grey landscape of Ireland in the rain. Teen romance and love triangles. It has more in common with shows like Supergirl (2015) and The Flash (2014) than it does Martin’s medieval-flavoured grimfest, and will find the audience that appreciates that.
This attempt to target a younger audience may explain why the characters use modern speech and idiom rather than the more formal or archaic faux-medievalist language we have come to expect from fantasy series and films. Admittedly I am one of those people who prefers a slightly more formal level of diction from my fantasy characters, and therefore I found the use of modern vernacular more than a little off-putting. But each to their own.
The Shannara Chronicles is not without its flaws. Some of the CGI is a little unconvincing or poorly integrated, but it is working with a TV budget, not a billion dollar cinema budget. Some of the acting and dialogue in the first two episodes fell a little flat, but it was just the first two episodes and even the best actors sometimes need a while to ‘get’ their role and character (have you ever seen Leonard Nimoy’s original portrayal of Spock in Star Trek? Check out ‘The Cage/The Menagerie’ and ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’). The story, characters, and ideas are not exactly screaming originality, but three-quarters of Hollywood cinema, and over half our TV shows aren’t exactly winning hands down on the originality front. Some aspects of the world and the costuming don’t entirely sell the concept of a future ‘real world’, but even big budget productions can make mistakes like this, and some of the wardrobe decisions are great.
So before you turn your nose up and sneer at this series, I would humbly suggest giving it a chance. High magic, high drama, an honest to goodness story of heroes versus villains to lift us out of our depressing cynicism, a brilliantly rendered world, and a whole heap of adventurous fun. There is a lot to like here and a lot to build on, and very few shows hit it right out of the park on the first pitch.
To summarise then, on the downside it isn’t a new Game of Thrones. On the upside, it isn’t a new Game of Thrones. We have room on our screens for more than one fantasy show. Let’s support this one, and the next, and the next. Shannara might not be for everyone, but it has potential and can entertain if you let it, especially if you are part of the younger generation.