The success of Game of Thrones has made epic fantasy on TV a more viable proposition than it’s ever been. All of a sudden stations and production companies are scrambling to plumb the depths of the genre, looking for their own cash cow franchise. MTV of all places decided to get in on the game by adapting Doing in The Wizard’s very own Shannara Chronicles, which was briefly featured in a Quick Read that came to an abrupt end because the book was boring as fuck.
I’m not going to watch the whole thing because I have better ways to waste my life; I’m thinking maybe five episodes or so, enough to get a taste for what the series is all about, and I’ll mix them in with our regular Let’s Reads to keep you all on your toes. I should make it clear up-front that these posts will come along at a fairly slow rate, as recapping the events of a TV show or movie is a lot more work than just quoting sections of a book.
Apparently the story as adapted skips over the first book entirely (it’s not hard to see why) and begins with the second, the Elfstones of Shannara. Apart from that I know basically nothing about this project and am going in completely blind. Sounds like… fun?
(Note: the screenshots in this post have an MTV watermark on them, deal with it)
The post-apocalyptic nature of the setting is much more evident right off the bat. This might be accurate to the second book, but it seems jarring compared to how stereo-typically Tolkien-esque the beginning of the first one was.
If they did decide to pump up the post-apocalyptic elements more (and the rest of the episode makes me suspect they probably did) then that seems like a bit of a strange move. The feeling I get is that they wanted to soften the high fantasy elements, which is a bit of a counter-intuitive move when you’re riding the coat-tails of Game of Thrones, a series that in some ways increased the overtly fantastical elements of the source material.
This is either an Elven city or a Final Fantasy location.
Yep, Elven city.
So this woman is named Amberly or Amberlay or something, and…
I’m sorry, but I need to take a moment to discuss those ears. Everyone else can see how fake and stupid they are, right? It’s not just me? I think the problem is that the characters dressed in more or less contemporary clothes, which heightens the feeling that you’re watching people in bad cosplay.
Anyway, so this woman is named Amberly or Amberlay or something and she’s practicing for some sort of race that will decide who gets to join “the chosen” and oh god I’m going to hate this aren’t I
Before we move on I also want to highlight the dialogue, which is straying heavily into exposition clunk mode. Amberle (apparently that’s how you spell it) addresses her uncle as “uncle” (so you know he’s her uncle), in the next scene Amberle’s servant calls her “Princess” (so you know she’s a princess) and then starts a sentence with “as your friend and loyal servant” (so you know she’s… yeah, you get it).
Jesus, they look like human-deer hybrids. I’m half-expecting that guy in the back to have a Centaur body.
It’s like if someone combined Divergent with a series about LARPers.
Amberle declares she’s running in the Elf race, which is all shocking because women don’t usually compete. The series does something here that always annoys the hell out of me, where we’re told that there are female army commanders and members of high government, but for some reason traditionally women don’t compete to become Chosen. There’s no law against it, it’s just never been done before.
This feels like the series having its cake and eating it, where Elf society can’t be sexist because we’re supposed to be sympathetic to them, but at the same time the protagonist needs to show what a special snowflake she is by being the first to do something cool, so the fictional setting is egalitarian in all but one very specific aspect.
I get that in real life equality doesn’t happen equally everywhere– the fact that there’s no law preventing a woman becoming president or prime minister or rising through the ranks of the army doesn’t mean that Sexism Is Over, and of course you have specific enclaves like religious orders that may be more patriarchal than their surrounding culture, but in a fictional setting the situation feels too artificially crafted. If there’s no rule against women competing, why has no woman ever tried it before now?
If we were told instead that woman do compete, but it’s rare, the contest is stacked against them and the few who succeed tend to be ostracized by their fellow Chosen, I’d find it much more tolerable and realistic.
Sweet jesus the acting in this thing is terrible. The actress playing Amberle is okay, but Mr. Dreamy Eyes up there is fucking awful.
So Amberle’s servant comes over and makes some remarks about how sweaty all the elf dudes are, and then Amberle pulls a violet ribbon out of her pocket and says “tie me up” and the servant woman smiles in this really salacious way. That was meant to come across as really blatant innuendo, right?
The race involves sprinting to a magic tree while blindfolded, with your hands tied behind your back. I guess being Chosen requires a very specific and limited skill-set? I suppose I need to see what exactly these people are being Chosen for before making any judgement.
Amberle gets tripped up as soon as the horn sounds (this is apparently allowed), has some sort of vision, then gets back up and manages to stay in the race. The next few scenes are of the contestants slamming into trees and clonking themselves on branches while epic Two Steps From Hell-esque music pounds in the background even though the whole farce seems more suited to Yakety Sax.
It doesn’t help that we have no idea what being Chosen actually means, and therefore we don’t know what the stakes of all of this are. Is it just a ceremonial title, or is this something that could change these people’s lives?
Check out this woman and her sweet ear armour. I want to know what her deal is.
Amberle predictably finishes seventh, getting a position as Chosen by the skin of her teeth, and then we segue into the opening credits which you can watch here. It’s a pretty stylish way of summing up the setting, although I lose my shit laughing every time the word “gnome” comes on screen.
God I hope we get to see some gnomes.
I bet those were really hard to build.
The victors of the race go to see the king, who as you can see is just hella mad about his daughter secretly joining in, although he manages to keep the lid on long enough to get the ceremonial address over with.
Okay seriously, what is with these people’s clothes? We’ve had contemporary minimalism, stereotypical fantasy armour, the king is wearing this vaguely Nepoleanic outfit, and then there’s this dude in a retro-futuristic jacket with the collar popped. And half the elves have these weird Mad Max spiky shoulder pauldrons for some reason.
It doesn’t help that a lot of the costumes look incredibly cheap– the shoulder thingy on that guy in the image is clearly made of plastic.
Anyway the king announces that it’s time to “recount the story of the sacred Elcryss”, or in other words, it’s exposition time! Thousands of years ago the elves fought a war against demons, which they won by using magic to seal the demons in a realm known as “the Forbidding.” The Elcryss– the magic tree everyone was racing to– is the seal on the demon’s prison, and as long as it lives they’ll remain locked up forever.
Chance that the demons will turn out to not be quite as imprisoned as everyone thought: verging on 100%.
The Chosen are the Elcryss’ protectors. I’m not sure how winning a race blindfolded qualifies a person for this task, but whatever.
As soon as Amberle touches the tree she has a vision of the Elf city being destroyed by demons and the burned husk of the Ellcrys covered in blood. It’s pretty metal.
We cut straight from the vision to what appears to be Tom Hanks in his underwear, half-frozen. He wakes up, recites an incantation about magic in a fantasy language, then says “IT HAS BEGUN” in a really portentous way even though there’s fucking no one else around so who the fuck is he talking to?
Look, I get that people in TV shows don’t speak realistically, but that doesn’t mean they should say shit to no one just to be dramatic. And “it has begun”? Seriously?
And now it’s time to meet our protagonist, Wil Ohmsford, who is apparently the grandson of Shea, the main character of the first book. He arrives at his cozy post-apocalypse hut with some medicine for his sick mother, only to find that it’s too late and she’s dying.
This all happens really fast– it’s literally about 30 seconds between our first glimpse of Wil and the beginning of the dramatic death scene, even though we have no idea who these people are and have had no time to get invested in them.
Before she dies Wil’s mom gives him three “elfstones”, which belonged to his father so that means they’re definitely part of some sort of epic destiny. Then she says “find the druid” and Wil cries many shining tears as she dies. Again: it might have been helpful if we had some sort of context at all for this shit.
Wil’s uncle tells him that the Elfstones killed his father and will bring him nothing but evil, and that he should throw them in the river. Needless to say he doesn’t.
Then it’s back over to magic sparkle-elf land, where Amberle is channeling Attack of The Clones-era Natalie Portman. Mr. Dreamy-Eyes comes to check up on her since she passed out after her vision at the Ellcrys. She asks him if he believes the Ellcrys is really a barrier holding back an army of demons, and he scoffs at the idea, telling her that magic died out with the druids.
Given how fantastical the Elf city is I kind of assumed this would be a fairly high-magic setting. Looks can be deceiving, apparently.
Wil takes off, supposedly to become a healer in the next town over but actually to pursue his epic destiny. The music is very stirring and dramatic to try and convince us that something cool is happening, but the actor playing Wil is way too moon-eyed and blank to sell the scene.
The place Wil lives in as referred to as “Shady Vale”, which is the name of the traditional fantasy village that Shay and what’s his face lived in in the first book. I see the show’s creators have taken a few liberties with the setting.
Wil’s uncle begs him to stay because there are “trolls and gnomes” in the outside world. FUCKIN WATCH OUT WIL, GNOMES.
Everyone look at this dog.
I was joking before when I mentioned Attack of The Clones, but that seriously is the closest parallel I can think of to what we’re seeing here.
There’s some romance bullshit I won’t go into, and then Amberle has another vision of the Elcryss. She goes back to the tree and touches it, and sees her not-boyfriend lying dead in a pool of blood, apparently by her hand. This naturally perturbs her and she decides that she has to leave Elftown and find someone who can help her. Enacting this plan involves knocking her not-boyfriend unconscious, which I approve of.
At least the show has some nice imagery. They allowed themselves to get admirably creative with the post-apocalyptic elements, which is cool.
Wil wanders by some stone pillars covered in blood and human skeletons, which for some reason doesn’t prompt him to immediately turn around. He gets attacked by a post-apocalypse Mad Max troll, but then a Badass Lady comes along and kills it.
Her name is Eritria (which is distractingly similar to Eritrea the African country), and she’s played by the girl from Pan’s Labyrinth, now slumming it in this garbage for some reason.
Was it really necessary to climb on top of that thing?
The camera pans around dramatically and the music is all DUN-DUN-DUH-DUH-DUH, which seems to happen a lot, as if this episode was made solely so it could be harvested for scenes that would look cool in trailers.
Meanwhile, back in Elftown (this thing is jumping all over the place), the Elcryss is developing some kind of disease that causes red stuff to come out of it. JUST LIKE AMBERLE SAW IN HER VISION LIKE WOAH.
Frozen Tom Hanks (although now he looks more like The Rock) shows up. Can you guess who this is? Yes, it’s Allanon, the Druid from the books. This is the one area where they seem to have remained entirely faithful to the source material, as I was able to recognize him the second I saw him in his druid getup based on his description from The Sword of Shannara.
Allanon delivers some truth bombs to the effect that the Elcryss is in fact not just a fancy tree and that the legend about the demons is totally real (but you knew that already). This prompts the characters to start talking about the Druids of Paranor and the War of The Races, which makes me remember how generic and dull the first book’s story set-up was.
After this Eretria robs Wil and steals his Elfstones by pretending to have sexy-times with him, but blah blah blah let’s skip over it. Allanon announces that the Elcryss is dying and that as its leaves fall demons will be released from the Forebidding one by one. They need to mobilize the army immediately, but ever since the war the king has been telling everyone that the demon story is just a myth, even though he was alive at the time of the Elcryss’ planting and knows for a fact that the threat is real.
…. wait, hang on. Why would he ever do that? He says it’s because he thought magic had vanished after the war, but so what? Why is that a reason to pretend it never existed? That makes absolutely no sense.
(Watching these actors deliver Very Serious Dialogue about demons and Warlock Lords is physically painful. I don’t think I’ve ever been more embarrassed on anyone else’s behalf)
hash tag shannara
A leaf falls from the Ellcryss, and over in some dark Mordor-looking place a vaguely Uruk-Hai-ish demon awakes and mumbles some nonsense about magic. The Elcryss legend made it sound as if it was literally sealing the demons away– as in, it was planted on top of a portal to the Forebidding or something– but apparently not.
Allanon shows up at the house where Eritrea dumped Wil and is all “destiny magic Elfstones descendant of Shannara oh wait you let someone steal the Elfstones? LMFAO ur a jackass, come on let’s go on a quest or some shit.”
Another leaf falls off the Ellcrys and a sexy naked shape-shifter lady appears in the Evil Zone. The other demon guy orders her to go to Elfland and kill the Chosen, and she turns into this cool monster thing.
So the first two episodes seem to have aired together; I have no idea where the cutoff between them is, but in service of not watching another hour of this BS I’m going to say it’s here.
THAT WAS SOME TOTAL HORSESHIT HUH?
Seriously. I’m shocked at how stupid this thing is. It’s obvious that a lot of people behind the production were trying their damndest– some of the visual choices they made are genuinely interesting– but holy christ I wish they had taken as many liberties with the story and dialogue. How anyone in 2016 can look at this shallow, cliche-ridden twaddle and think it’s worthy of a big-budget adaptation is beyond me.
And actually, I need to modify the faint praise I gave the show a minute ago: some of the visual design like the dramatic post-apocalyptic vistas and the demons are cool, but then you’ve got the laughably cheap costumes and the goofy sparkly Star Wars prequel elven city, which are just painful to look at.
I know I said I was going to do five episodes, but do I really need to? Really? Do you people really want to see more of this?
….Post in the comments if you want to see more of this.
And before we go, I leave you with the many faces of Wil Ohsmford: