Greeted by lukewarm reviews, The Wheel of Time (Amazon Prime) has several barriers to overcome, not the least of which is that even people like me, who have more than a passing familiarity with the genre, have never heard of it. Am I so unusual? It seemed inevitable that reviewers in the mainstream would be a bit cool about it. They’re going to immediately reach for Game of Thrones comparisons, and they’ll already have experienced the lacklustre output of fantasy and cod fantasy in the wake of GoT. Sit down, Vikings. Most of the lustre was scrubbed away from GoT in its final season, and the best that has come along since has been the bonkers Britannia, and even that is very much an acquired taste.
This all goes back to William Goldman’s mantra about Hollywood: nobody knows. Nobody really knows why GoT was such a success. Sure, good story, powerful characters, great actors, money thrown at the screen, all that. But still, there have been plenty of shows with those elements that didn’t quite take off, lots of them genre shows. I’ve been a big fan of a lot of them. And even the genre shows that did garner good reviews and a following tended to under deliver in later seasons. And there have been excellent shows that have had five good years and yet: I’ve never met anyone who watched them. Consider the following.
- Travelers (Netflix). Superb show. Cancelled after three seasons. Never met anyone who watched it.
- Magicians (Amazon Prime). Fucking excellent show. Five seasons of it, and I’m having to force a friend to watch it by threatening the safety of her children.
- Stranger Things (Netflix). Yes, it was quite a good first season. But after that? Bof.
- Good Omens? American Gods? The Watch? Bof, bof, bof.
If you held a gun to my head, I might suggest that much of the success of Game of Thrones was owed to Emilia Clarke, whose frequent nude scenes in Season 1 made it both controversial and, well, you know. But watch it now, post #metoo, and if you’re not squirming, you’ve not been paying attention. And, well, read the room, casting director: you have to go quite a long way down the cast list before you get to Nathalie Emmanuel and Jacob Anderson.
So the problem with the fantasy genre in particular is that it tends towards the multi-volume epic. We all know about Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire. I’ve mentioned in the past my fondness for Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series. I’ve also read series by Joe Abercrombie, Robin Hobb, Tad Williams, and N K Jemeson — and that short listing barely scratches the surface.
So, yeah, if you said the name Robert Jordan to me, I’d have acknowledged that I’ve seen the name, but I’ve never picked up any of the books, and couldn’t name a title or the series.
Which brings us back to The Wheel of Time, which already looks to me like a better investment than the Lord of the Rings But Only the Bits Approved by the Estate deal. If they’d come to me, I might have suggested one of the above, but that doesn’t mean I think they’ve made a bad choice with the late Robert Jordan’s books. At least they know there’s an ending! As to the premise, it all centres around a character called Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) a magician who is looking for the reincarnation of a figure called The Dragon, who supposedly has the power to save the world or destroy it. And, I get it, to non-genre fans this can sound like it might be a bit silly. So did Game of Thrones. So did Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Because the strength of these narratives isn’t about the magic and the dragons. It’s about the storytelling and the world building. And to anyone who sneers, I say, just look at the cast.
Just a look at it tells you how far we’ve come. For a start, it’s not all bloody men, so it’s not one of those contrived situations where half the population are missing. But the main thing about the cast is that it is colourful and diverse and – thank goodness – the producers haven’t decided that all the characters must be white because it wouldn’t be ‘realistic’ to have people of colour.
I watched the first three episodes (five more to come in this season), and I have to say it was very watchable. There were some distractingly bad fake beards (or, if they were real, distractingly bad real beards). There were some scary monsters, some extended action scenes, a bit of magic, some gruesome cruelty. Quite a lot of exposition, inevitably. Someone coughs up a bat. But no gratuitous nudity cynically calculated to garner headlines. Actually, it’s all right. And Amazon/Sony have done better with this than Apple did with Foundation, so there’s that. Definitely the kind of thing you might like if you like this kind of thing — and a lot of people do.