By Steven Poore
Fantasy TV, in general, owes a great debt to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, in much the same way that The Eye of the World, the first book of The Wheel of Time, does to Tolkien’s original novel. Trollocs, dark lords, an urgent departure from an idyllic home – there’s even a ferry crossing by night, the heroes barely escaping by the skin of their teeth from the hooded evil pursuing them. And as the wheel does turn… so this new adaptation of The Wheel of Time inevitably looks back at Jackson’s work too.
There are sweeping vistas galore in the Two Rivers, where the first episode of the Wheel of Time (Amazon Prime, November 2021) begins: great peaks, tall forests, crashing water, all accompanied by haunting voices in the soundtrack. Emond’s Field is filled with tall, curved houses of wood and slate, impossibly graceful. All is as bucolic as the Shire – at least, to begin with. The design veers decidedly away from realism, with everybody living in fantastic houses around a village green, but it compares favourably to the lower budget efforts such as Shannara and Legends of the Seeker and, to be fair, does look very good on the small screen.
And then a stranger comes to town, and all hell breaks loose. Of course, Game of Thrones is the touchstone for fantasy television now, and in the wake of that success, there is plenty of blood spilt in this first episode to motivate our heroes to begin their epic quest. The Trolloc attack on Emond’s Field is brutal and chaotic, contrasted against Rosamund Pike’s quite deliberate and balletic spellcasting.
The first episode is uneven in tone. It has a lot to fit in, a lot to introduce, and while the source material takes time to get into gear, this episode has to start on the front foot. It would help if the main cast were more charismatic, but they seem to be struggling with their characters here: Josha Stradowski and Barney Harris are awkward in the roles of Rand al’Thor and Mat Cauthon respectively. Marcus Rutherford begins woodenly, but a big divergence from the books’ plot serves to give him something to be massively awkward about. Rosamund Pike has a lot of work to do with what is a largely expository and unhelpful script.
The second episode takes our heroes into the ruined city of Shadar Logoth, Robert Jordan’s equivalent of the mines of Khazadhun. Having set the stage, the series now falls prey to “second episode” syndrome and is let down a little by some rough effects compositing. The Trolloc effects, on the other hand, are largely practical rather than CGI. At least some lessons have been learned from the overbearing barrage of CGI that was The Hobbit… The creeping evil that splits the party and drives them out of the city is well done, however, as is the introduction of the Whitecloaks, the fanatical martial order that hunts down women with magical powers.
It’s in the third episode of the three released in the launch batch that Wheel of Time finally gains some measure of confidence. In the pre-credits sequence, blood swirls in a circular pool to form a yin/yang balance symbol. Another shot in the same sequence cheekily echoes a moment from Apocalypse Now. The camera work begins to flow more easily. The design adds in frontier Gold Rush to the aesthetic, and the leads work comfortably alongside each other. Friction between the characters lends them more depth. Zoe Robins, who had little to do in the first episode and nothing at all in the second, provides the spark required in the dynamic between the Emond’s Field group and Moiraine. Robins and Rutherford both have the potential to do something interesting with their characters.
On the evidence of these three available episodes, The Wheel of Time is an unashamedly ambitious show. The production team seems quite aware of how much – in both story and history – it must fit into every frame of each episode, so the landscapes are filled with ancient monuments and ruined buildings, layers of a forgotten past. Hints of the forthcoming plot are dropped into the dialogue right from the start, with mentions of Ghealdan and other far-off places. The appearance of the “false Dragon” Logain baits the viewer into waiting for the next episode. Yet even with a stuttering start, it’s easy to watch, and with a second season already confirmed, it’s clear that the showrunners and their backers at Amazon Prime are committed to the long haul. If the confidence of the cast continues to grow alongside a script that isn’t frightened to do things slightly differently, I see no reason why this particular Wheel shouldn’t continue to turn.
You’ll notice that all of the genre comparisons are to TV shows where the source material is books from the 1980s or early 90s. It’s no accident, I think, that showrunners are turning to a time that arguably laid the post-Frodo foundation (pun intended) for modern fantasy fiction. Wheel of Time, Game of Thrones, Shannara, Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule – they are all still talked about today as influences and places to begin reading in the genre. But though the showrunners in this instance are plainly doing their best to update the material and make it relevant to the 21st century, there’s no hiding the fact that the books are a good 30 years old, and the basic plot of The Eye of the World is a Tolkienesque road trip with a sort of fellowship. At this point, with adaptations of all of these “basic” texts in place and the attraction of fantasy fiction to audiences proven, surely showrunners should be looking to adapt more recent and more diverse material. Let’s see something a little more challenging than a farm boy on a quest.