Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Shannara Chronicles: Season 1

The Four Lands is threatened with a devastating invasion from demons. Millennia ago, the demons were imprisoned in the Forbidding, an alternative dimension warded shut by the Ellcrys, a giant magical tree. Now the Ellcrys is dying and the Forbidding is failing, allowing the demons to return. It falls to Wil Ohmsford (the half-elven descendant of the Shannara bloodline), Princess Amberle Elessedil and Eretria, a rover girl, to travel across the Four Lands and restore the Ellcrys and the Forbidding.

Terry Brooks's Shannara series holds an important place in the history of epic fantasy. The first novel in the sequence, The Sword of Shannara (1977), was the first big epic fantasy novel to hit the New York Times bestseller list since Tolkien, and along with Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series ushered in the modern era of fantasy novels. However, The Sword of Shannara has also become a byword for poor-quality fantasy that knocks off Tolkien rather than furthering the development of the genre. Given that the Shannara series (now encompassing twenty-eight novels) has sold almost fifty million copies worldwide, making it one of the biggest-selling fantasy series of all time (only A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time, Discworld, Narnia, Middle-earth and Harry Potter - if you count it as epic fantasy - have sold more), it's surprising that it's taken this long for someone to attempt an adaptation.

MTV, sensibly, have ignored the first book in the series (presumably for fear of legal action from New Line) and have instead picked up with the events of the second, The Elfstones of Shannara. These early books in the series were stand-alones, so it's not too much of a problem. It was also a good idea to start with Elfstones as it is possibly the best book Brooks has ever written. MTV also made the very wise choice to emphasise the fact that the Shannara books are set in a post-apocalyptic version of the United States's west coast. Unlike the books, where geography has completely shifted and only vaguely recognisable remnants of the prior age can be seen, the TV show is partially set in the still-recognisable ruins of Seattle and San Francisco and at times adopts a post-apocalyptic vibe far more reminiscent of The 100 rather than Game of Thrones.

These attempts to give The Shannara Chronicles its own character and atmosphere are both laudable and ultimately futile. No design work, exceptional CGI or occasionally inventive genre-bending can make up for serious deficiencies in the script and casting, and the show suffers from both. Dialogue is frequently awful and occasionally reduces the viewer to tears of laughter. Characterisation is deeply flawed, with characters goals and motivations being artificially obvious and change at the whim of the plot. A lot of time is spent on subplots that go nowhere, and there is significant wheel-spinning (a visit to a town called Utopia is total padding). There is also a lot more sex and violence (if mostly of a PG-13 kind) than I remember from the book (including a tiresome  lesbian titillation scene) and a few "shock" twists that serve no purpose.  The villains are charismaless, boring monsters who are more than slightly reminiscent of the orcs from Peter Jackson's Middle-earth movies.

Among the major actors, John Rhys-Davies brings his standard avuncular charm to the role of the elven king but it falls to the charismatic Manu Bennett to single-handedly raise the acting bar for the whole cast. Ivana Baquero builds on the early promise she showed as a child star in Pan's Labyrinth to deliver a good performance as Eretria, ploughing through terrible lines with admirable enthusiasm. Poppy Drayton overcomes early episode woodenness to deliver some better moments as Amberle, but both actresses feel a little wasted on the material. Austin Butler, on the other hand, delivers a flat, one-note performance as Will that never rises above the mediocre. Of the other actors the only one who really stands out is James Remar, a veteran American actor who can chew scenery with the best of them and makes the best of a bad script.

Visually, the show is stunning. Some of the scene-setting CGI is remarkable and the use of the New Zealand landscape is often very well-done. Certainly the show is worth catching in HD if you do plan to watch it. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the music, which draws on a range of MOR American pop with the occasional more interesting track thrown in (Ruele's title song is, fortunately, very good and props to the show for dropping in Woodkid's excellent "Run Boy Run"). But those looking for an original, sweeping, epic score will be let down badly.

The first season of The Shannara Chronicles (**) isn't a complete waste of time. It's visually impressive and cleverly overcomes both the limitations of the so-so soure material and the inevitable comparisons with other fantasy works by playing to its main strength, the post-apocalyptic setting. But in terms of writing, dialogue, acting (a few honourable exceptions aside) and soundtrack, it's a major disappointment. The season will be released on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA) on 7 June. It has, somehow, been renewed for a second season to air in 2017.

1 comment:

Janusz said...

Le Guin, Tiptree, Bujold outside top ten, while Lackey, Sedia and Pierce in? Laughter is the only proper reaction...