Terry Brooks’ long-running and bestselling Shannara series was my second foray into the world of epic fantasy (the first, of course, was The Lord of the Rings). As such, Brooks’ work has always occupied a special place in my heart.
Imagine my delight, then, when I heard that the series had, at long last, made it through the trials of production and was finally going to emerge as a TV series. Imagine also my small amount of distress when I discovered the sponsoring network was MTV.
Having watched three/four episodes (the premiere was a two-parter), I can say that those doubts have been largely laid to rest.
The first episode establishes this universe. Amberle (Poppy Drayton), the granddaughter of the Elf king Eventine Elessedil (Jonathan Rhys-Davies), breaks the traditions of her people and enters the service of the mysterious tree the Ellcrys. Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler), a young, aspiring healer, Eretria (Ivana Banquero), a member of a vagabond group called Rovers, and the enigmatic Allanon (Manu Bennett), the last of the ancient order of scholars, warriors, and sorcerers known as the Druids round out the cast. Together, they must not only contend with the dying Ellcrys, but also with the demons that will slowly be unleashed with its dying, including the terrifying Dagda Mor and his servant the Changeling.
There is a lot to like in this first episode. The cosmic stakes are established quite early, and the plot moves at a brisk pace. There are some politics seething in the royal family of the Elves that show some definite potential, including a three-way feud between Eventine and his sons Arion (Daniel MacPherson) and Ander (Aaron Jakubenk0). There are also glimmers of several other Races that might come to play a part in the eventual climactic confrontation (Gnomes and Trolls are both mentioned by name, and a Troll even makes an appearance).
Don’t get me wrong, there are some minor glitches. While I fond the trio comprising the central cast to be charming, they are clearly still growing into their acting chops. And there were a few sour notes in terms of contemporary jargon creeping in (though this doesn’t really become an issue until several episodes in). Still, there’s a lot of chemistry between the three leads, and if the show beefs up its writing a bit they could really grow into something quite compelling.
As far as the “mature” cast goes, there is not question that Manu Bennett absolutely nails it as Allanon, one of Brooks’ most enigmatic and fascinating creations. Bennett certainly has experience playing in fantastic series. This is the man, after all, who was the stern and brutal gladiator in Spartacus and the villainous and merciless Orc Azog in The Hobbit films. Here, he manages to combine a measure of gravitas with a certain world-weary and wry sense of humour.
A similar phenomenon occurs with Jonathan Rhys-Davies, himself no stranger to the fantastic worlds. This is the man, after all, who played both Treebeard and Gimli in The Lord of the Rings. Here, he is in fine form as the proud and strong King of the Elves, a man who has survived his fair share of heartache and war, who led the Races through war and eventually into peace thirty years ago, and must now lead his people through an even greater challenge.
As with any fantasy series, some of the most compelling characters are the demons. Headed by their terrifying leader the Dagda Mor, these demons are mindless and terrifying killing machines, determined to bring about the end of the the Elves and the society that they have so desperately sought to build in the ashes of the Old World. Both the Dagda Mor and the Changeling are also creatures of immense power, and as the Ellcrys grows weaker, we know that more and more deadly and destructive forces will be unleashed.
And no review of The Shannara Chronicles would be complete without mentioning the absolutely gorgeous New Zealand landscape. With its tantalizing glimpses of our –rusted husks of helicopters, the iconic Space Needle toppled and overgrown with foliage–the series reminds us of the futility of human endeavour. Far more than just window-dressing, these reminders of humanity’s past glories show us the ultimate ephemerality of human accomplishment. As such, these sights serve as something of a counternarrative to the quest narrative established in the main narrative. Who’s to say that, even if they defeat the Demons, that evil will not return in an even more pernicious form? It’s a humbling, and bleakly pessimistic, undercurrent to this otherwise optimistic series.
Is The Shannara Chronicles the new Game of Thrones? No. But then, it doesn’t want to be. For those of us who have always loved Brooks’ work, it’s a thrill to see it brought to the screen, and I for one can’t wait to see what the rest of the season has to offer.