TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–“Druid” (S2, Ep. 1)

Well, it’s been a long time coming, but The Shannara Chronicles has at last returned, now on Spike rather than on MTV. I admit to being a little skeptical going in, but overall I’m quite pleased with the result. This is a series that has truly grown from its beginnings and that shows a lot of potential for the future.

To enjoy this series, you have to accept this basic premise: the show is not, in any way shape or form, a direct translation of Brooks’s work to the screen. It is instead an adaptation of the various books combined, with each season drawing on various narrative threads from different books. This lends the series a vitality and energy that it might not have had were it a simple adaptation. I know that I may not be popular with the many fans of the original series, but I’m sticking to it.

This season takes us into some darker territory than the preceding one, with our three remaining leads pursuing their own lives. Eretria has settled into life with a community led by the former Druid Cogline, while Wil has taken up with a group of Gnome healers.  King Ander from the last season has begun to grow into his role as the ruler of the Elves, while Allanon continues to fight against the forces of evil that would see the ruination of the Four Lands. The stakes seem to have never been higher, and it remains uncertain who will make it out of this season alive.

The heroes are matched by two malevolent forces. On the supernatural side, the seer Bandon from the previous season leads a band of followers to the Skull Kingdom, initiating them into weapons of hate and destruction known as Mord Wraiths, all in the service of continuing the efforts of the undead Warlock Lord. In the world of mortals, the heroes are faced with the Crimson, a group determined to weed magic out of the world. Both are intent on finding and destroying our beloved Wil, and they will harm or kill anyone who dares to get in their way.

The first episode does see the introduction of some new characters that are fan favourites from the books, such as Cogline, the disgraced Druid who believes more in the power of science than in that of magic. It remains unclear what his motivations are other than his vow to Eretria’s mother , but it seems he may be a bit more menacing this his book counterpart. The other major addition is the young woman Mareth who is, to be quite honest, a total badass. If there’s one redeeming thing about this show, it’s the abundance of great female characters. Given the problematic way in which many other fantasy series treat their female characters, this is definitely a breath of fresh air.

This first episode also featured some truly beautiful scenery, including an aerial shot of a post-apocalyptic shot of San Francisco (which, for what it’s worth, is also the setting for the post-apocalyptic Planet of the Apes). The world in this season feels more fleshed-out than in the first, and we get a better sense of its contours, as well as the conflicts that will rage across it. It remains to be seen how the conflicts among the various races will take shape, with consequences that will potentially be deadly for everyone involved.

Just as importantly, the characters also feel richer and more textured, and this no doubt stems from the fact that the actors themselves have matured. While Manu Bennett continues to chew scenery as the irrepressible and indomitable Druid Allanon, both Austin Butler and Ivana Baquero have really matured as actors since the first season. This is not to say that they weren’t perfectly capable in the first season, but in that case they definitely seemed a bit more of what one might expect from MTV. These characters feel like they actually belong in the grand landscapes in which they appear; in my view, this definitely bodes well for the development of both their characters and the series a whole.

All in all, this second season of The Shannara Chronicles feels like a more mature series. I’m sure that many of the Brooks purists out there will not be pleased, but as someone who has read the books for over 2 decades, I’m pleased with it. There’s a certain pleasure to be gained from the changes, and since the series has Brooks’s approval, I’m happy to go along with it.

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TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Safehold”

So, here we are. The penultimate episode of The Shannara Chronicles has dawned, and it was definitely one of the finest episodes (if not the finest) that the series has produced so far. In this episode, the brave fellowship of young people finally make their way to Safehold and the Bloodfire, while Allanon ensures that Ander at last takes the throne that is rightfully his. And, of course, the last leaf at last falls from the Ellcrys, ensuring that the Dagda Mor is now free to march on Arborlon with his demon army at his back.

This episode had a lot of gems for those fans of Brooks’ novels. Those who have read the entirety of his oeuvre recognize in the rhetoric about the children of the armageddon (of which Eretria is a descendant) the Genesis of Shannara trilogy which revealed that the world of the Four Lands is indeed our world in the distant future. Furthermore, the emphasis on Eretria’s blood–it ultimately unlocks the Bloodfire–suggests that it may be her heritage, as much as Wil’s, that will influence the fate of her children and their many descendants.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This series has really done wonders bringing Eretria to magnificent life. While she was certainly a feisty and compelling character in the original novel, Ivana Banquero manages to convey both her phenomenal strength and her intimate vulnerability. Even now, as they near the end of the quest, she still feels the pangs of love for Wil (which she believes are not reciprocated), and it is this deep, and very human, need for love and acceptance that grants her character such depth.

And how amazing was it that we (we being Brooks’s faithful readers) finally have a solution to the mystery of Safehold’s location. We can now say with certainty that it is in the ruins of San Francisco/Oakland (Wil uses a stone to scratch in the missing letters on an old street sign). This is a bit of a mixed blessing, as it clears up one of the most enduring mysteries of Brooks’s world, and yet there is something a bit bittersweet about learning the exact location of this mysterious form. Fortunately, the series also leaves a great many questions unanswered (we still don’t know exactly what the Bloodfire is, for example, nor do we know why it’s located in the ruins of San Francisco).

If there was one thing I did not particularly like about this episode, ti was the way in which the witch sisters Morag and Mallenroh appeared. They were always one of my favourite parts about the novel, precisely because we knew so little about them and yet they seemed like such an integral part of the world Brooks had created. They were, according to the mythos, part of a coven, and they had long existed in a stalemate of hatred. None of that complex backstory made its way into the adaptation, alas, with the two witches appearing as straightforward guardians of the Bloodfire.

That minor quibble aside, this episode managed to bring out the very best that this series has to offer. We got some politics, the fulfillment (almost) of the quest, and the climactic death of the Ellcrys. This is the kind of storytelling that the series should have focused on all along. Indeed, I would argue that it really does best dramatically when it stays true to the epic roots from which it so clearly draws. With this kind of emphasis, it gives the characters, and their arcs, more depth and heft than they have gained (up until this episode, that is). Hopefully, this is a lesson that the writers will take into account if the series is granted another season by the powers that be.

Given the strength of this episode, I can say without a doubt that I am eagerly awaiting the conclusion of this first season. I will also admit that I am fervently hoping that it will be renewed for a second season. With the vast tapestry of Brooks’s work to draw on, especially the intergenerational component, the series could easily fit into the anthology model that has become increasingly popular and common in the cable media sphere.

Are you listening, MTV?

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Utopia”

Events on The Shannara Chronicles continue to speed forward in “Utopia,” as Amberle and Wil set out to save Eretria from the clutches of the Elf-hunters and from a group of peace-seeking humans in a settlement called Utopia. Meanwhile, Ander must finally make the choice of whether to become the king that the Elves need, while Allanon braces for his final confrontation with the Dagda Mor.

While Wil and Amberle are supposedly the narrative and character center points of this series, this episode showed why both Eretria and Ander have always threatened to steal the show. Both are broken in their own way, she from the cruel and heartless treatment from her “father” Cephelo and he from the fact that he is the youngest, and most disappointing son of an illustrious dynasty. Now, they both have opportunities and risks to face. She ultimately has to decide whether she will throw her lot in with Wil and Amberle or stay with the (ultimately corrupt) denizens of Utopia. He must decide whether he will take up the mantle of kingship that was never meant to be his. In many ways, their drama seems to be much more compelling than that of Amberle and Wil, and while this may seem like a good thing, I’m not entirely sure it’s what the series intended.

In many ways, it’s hard to believe that we’ve almost reached the ending of this first (but hopefully not last) season of The Shannara Chronicles. We haven’t even attained the Bloodfire yet, and the Demons have yet to launch their all-out assault on Arborlon, and yet there are only two episodes left until the season is over. It seems like the series has opted to focus (understandably, given the way in which it conceptualizes its target demographic), on the personal rather than the epic scope. Unfortunately, this has the effect of sometimes emptying out the larger scale drama of its significance. This is not to say that the epic and the personal cannot be intertwined, only that the series has not been terribly effective at bringing them together.

While I liked the introduction of the sarcastically titled city of Utopia, this again felt like a plot twist too quickly resolved to have any lasting impact. We’re briefly introduced to yet another set of vaguely malicious and unscrupulous characters, only to have them consumed by Trolls at the end of the episode. While this sort of structure works to keep each episode moving along, it doesn’t really add up to anything, and the disappearance of the Demons from the narrative only exacerbates this narrative problem.

Speaking of Trolls…I’m still not entirely sure what to make of the series’ treatment of them. In the novels, the Trolls, while primitive in some respects, do have a solid social structure, and they don’t go about hunting and eating Elves. Given that, I’m not sure that the series will ever be able to do anything truly meaningful with them, but I could be wrong. Given the substantial role that Trolls play in several of Brooks’s later works, I sincerely hope that they give this particular Race more development in future seasons.

This was, all in all, a very satisfying episode, though I do worry that the last two episodes are going to feel rushed and therefore unsatisfying. Hopefully, should the series get a second season, the writers will develop a better sense of pacing and characterization, so that we don’t spend so much time in trite (and not very compelling) drama and move into the truly interesting bits at the heart of Brooks’s epic vision.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles:” “Pykon”

Note:  Spoilers for the episode follow.

In the most recent episode of The Shannara Chronicles, the small company heading toward the Bloodfire confronts a pair of deranged recluses in a mountain fortress, Allanon struggles with both the seer and the increasing power of the Dagda Mor, and Ander finally sees for himself the enormous forces gathered to sweep across the Westland.

While I really, truly do like this show, I often find myself frustrated with the choices it makes in terms of narrative and dramatic construction. While I’m totally okay with changes being made to the show for the sake of clarity and increased drama, it doesn’t make any sense to me why they would introduce characters that do not appear in the books (in this case, the deranged recluse and his mentally scarred daughter), other than to act as mere titillation. After all, they are both dead by the end of the episode, so one is left wondering:  what, exactly, was the point of what just transpired? I can’t help thinking that the narrative space taken up by this rather superfluous storyline would have been better used to beef up some of the other plot threads that are, in the main, infinitely more interesting.

However, this episode did give us a little more information about Eritrea, who makes an attempt at seduction of Amberle. While I’m sure some will read this as mere pandering, I actually think it adds a layer of complexity to her. She is gradually emerging as a young woman scarred from the years under Cephelo’s cruel and uncaring hand, and as such she wants to find affection wherever she can. This scene also sets the stage for an emerging dynamic among the three leads. No matter what happens, it’s almost a certainty that at least one person is going to end up getting very hurt.

I am also increasingly impressed by the growing relationship between Ander and the Gnome Slanter. Although Slanter doesn’t actually enter the Brooks’ universe until the book The Wishsong of Shannara, it’s actually a little nice to see him here in this narrative. He actually seems to be a fairly complex and contradictory character. Of course, it remains to be seen in what ways his arc will continue to develop, though we can hope that he will take a leading role in the fight against the demons.

Of course, the biggest shock of the night was the seeming death of Allanon. The Changeling continues to sow chaos throughout the royal palace and beyond. I’m still not entirely sold on this particular storyline, as it seems to raise more questions and narrative challenges than it solves, but I suppose I just have to have hope that the writers have a larger game plan in mind. Though Allanon didn’t get a great deal of air time in this episode, I am absolutely confident that he will come to the fore again as the final confrontation with the Dagda Mor and his armies at last comes to pass.

So, was this a great episode? No. However, it did lay the groundwork for what is to come, and I sincerely hope that the writers finally figure out what they are doing and finally get to the meat of the story they want to tell.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Reaper”

Warning:  Spoilers for the episode follow.

In the most recent episode of MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, the three young heroes have at last begun to make their way through the wilderness of the Westland. While they are briefly captured by the Rovers, they manage to escape and take Cephelo captive, only to find themselves confronted by the Dagda Mor’s newest weapon, the killing machine known as the Reaper. In Aborlon, the Changeling finally murders the king, setting the stage for political chaos to follow.

While there were a few hiccups throughout the episode, overall I felt this was one of the strongest outings yet. The action has finally begun to move forward, and really it is about time. We’ve now halfway through the season, and there is a great deal of material to cover before we reach the much-hyped titanic battle between the Demons and the Elves, to say nothing of Amberle and her own quest. That’s a lot of plot to get through, but I have confidence that they will be able to do justice to the material (though I still think they could have compressed the previous couple of episodes).

I was also quite excited to see the race of the Gnomes at last brought into the light. So far, they’ve simply hovered at the edges of the narrative, but with their introduction we get another glimpse at the darkness that runs beneath the Four Lands. It’s sometimes easy to forget that, in Brooks’s universe, one unfortunate byproduct of the downfall of the Old World was the genetic damage wrought upon many of the humans. While the Elves predate humanity, the other races (Dwarves, Trolls, and Gnomes) are the byproduct of mankind’s proclivity toward self-destruction. Their introduction into the series gives me hope that the series will continue to provide us glimpses into the other Races that comprise the political landscape of Brooks’s world.

The Reaper was certainly worth waiting for, as it has always been one of my favourite of Brooks’s many compelling and deliciously evil villains. The creature as it is presented here is a being that desires nothing more than killing anything and everything in its path, a being of such mindless hate that nothing short of absolute destruction has any hope of stopping it. Millennia of imprisonment in the Forbidding have given it a thirst for blood, and it remains to be seen just how many innocent people it will take down before it too is destroyed.

During the confrontation with the Reaper, we also get out first glimpses of Wil’s struggles with the Elfstones, for he finds that they refuse to respond to him in this desperate hour of need. As with all magic in Brooks’s world, they demand something of the user in order to work properly, and Wil’s half-Elven heritage means that it takes even greater effort than it did for his father. Furthermore, their lack of response also suggests that Wil is not nearly as confident as he might appear at first, and that he will have to make many sacrifices if he hopes to see this quest through to its completion.

If I have one other major complaint, it would be the premature murder of King Eventine by the Changeling. I mean we still get the privilege of seeing Jonathan Rhys-Davies (who has always been one of the highlights of the show), but I find it difficult to imagine how they are going to reshape the rest of the season to make this incident fit into the established narrative arc. It just seemed like a bit of a cheap move, but perhaps there will be some payoff later in the season.

All in all, this was a thoroughly satisfying episode, and as always I cannot wait to see what next week’s episode has in store.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Changeling”

In the most recent episode of MTV’s fantasy drama, Amberle finally enters the Elcrys and overcomes her personal demons and is granted the precious seed, Wil emotes and sleeps with Eritrea, who in turn is finally forced to accompany them both to the Bloodfire. Allanon finally uncovers the Changeling and seemingly kills it, only for it to return to life and slay the Elf charged with destroying its body.

On one level, I can understand what this episode was trying to do. It wanted to give us a little more insight into the motivations of these characters, what makes them tick, and how they continue to navigate what is obviously a very troubled and fractious relationship. And certainly, it also wants to provide its target demographic with the sort of soap opera (and I don’t use that term derogatorily, btw) antics that it believes tweens and teens want to see. But haven’t we seen a great deal of that already in the episodes we’ve already seen? Why do we need to spend more time loitering about the palace, when there’s a quest to be undertaken, and no one really knows quite where the Bloodfire is?

Given the fact that there is a great deal more to happen (I assume) within the space of the season, I remain somewhat flummoxed why so much time was spent on what amount to relatively trivial matters (especially given the fact that, you know, apocalypse is basically looming just around the corner). There remains much in this episode that feels far too much like filler, and I’m left wondering why they didn’t spend more time developing the characters of some of the other key characters, such as the Captain of the Guard, or even the King and his sons (though it also remains unclear to me why his elder son stubbornly clings to his disbelief in magic, despite all evidence to the contrary).

I’ve heard it said that Manu Bennett almost seems to be in a different TV show than everyone else, and while that’s true to an extent, I also think that’s part of the series’ appeal. Allanon and Eventine are the only two who seem to have a true grasp of the enormity of the challenges and dangers they face, and it is up to them to pull the younger, more foolish people into the maturity they need in order to survive. However, this particular dynamic can only remain interesting for so long, and it is high time that the series moves on with showing the youthful trio begin that painful (in this case no doubt both literal and metaphorical) journey into adulthood.

On the plus side, I continue to enjoy the appearance of the Changeling. I’ve long thought that one of Brooks’s singular talents as a writer of fantasy has been his ability to craft exceptional villains, and the series has done him justice. I have no doubt that the Changeling will continue to wreak havoc in the palace and beyond, with consequences that might prove dire for at least some of the characters that we have already begun to know and love (no spoilers, I promise!)

Overall, I found this to be the weakest outing for the series thus far. While it had its enjoyable moments, it far too often fell into the trap of pointless bickering for bickering’s sake, leaving its young leads little room to grow. Fortunately, however, it appears that next week’s episode is set to show us the epic quest in its proper form, as well as one of Brooks’s most formidable demonic creations:  the Demon known as the Reaper.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Fury”

In this episode, Amberle and Wil find themselves captured by the Rovers, whose leader Cephelo is a greedy and uncaring fellow. Fortunately, they are rescued from their capture by Allanon, who finally gets them back to Arborlon. There, a reluctant and plainly terrified Amberle is finally granted access to the Ellcrys, who will determine whether she is worthy to carry the seed to the Bloodfire.

The young cast continues to do itself credit. Eritrea has finally begun to gain a bit of depth. Beneath that petulant and sneering exterior beats the heart of a young woman deeply embittered by the world in which she lives and by the “father” that continues to treat her as a piece of (sometimes) valuable property. While she sometimes comes off as more than a little petulant, we can’t really blame her, not considering how awful her “father” continues to be.

Speaking of Cephelo. Though he is, without a doubt, one of the series’ most despicable and ruthless characters, there is a certain amount of charisma about him (which is exactly how he appears in the book). You want so much to like this character, even as you realize that there is an intense and even somewhat sociopathic cruelty and malice underneath all of that, a darkness that will have significant consequences for everyone with whom he comes into contact.

Naturally, Manu Bennett continues to be the heart of the show as the great Allanon. In my humble opinion, the Druid has long been one of the most compelling of Brooks’s many creations, and Bennett continues to do him justice. This is a man on whom the burden of the fate of the Four Lands has disproportionately fallen. As he tells Amberle, the centuries that have preceded them have led up to this point, and none of them–not Amberle, not Wil, not Allanon himself–have the power to resist the power of the past, of history, and the burden of the future.

This episode allows us to see, if we haven’t already, that this is not an easy world to inhabit. The Demons are monsters are implacable hatred and cruelty, and they are clearly willing to do anything in their power to bring about the deaths of their nemeses the Elves. What’s more, we also learn that the Elves are themselves divided, and their relationships with the other Races (including and especially Men and Gnomes) are fraught and often violent.

What’s more, we also get an increased sense that, in Brooks’s world, magic often exacts a terrible price on those who use it. While not as intricately imagined as some other magic systems (such as that in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, for example), Brooks leaves us in no doubt that the Elfstones will have an impact on Wil beyond the moment. Though he has finally mastered the art of using them as a weapon, readers of the book know that his actions will have effects not only on his own body, but also for generations of Ohmsfords to come.

If anything, “Fury” is an even better episode than the premiere. The story continues to move forward at a good clip, and even though I know the eventual endpoint (having read the books several times over my life), I still find myself wanting to watch more. If anything, I’m as excited for the potential changes to the story as I am to see the familiar notes adapted. What’s more, I sincerely hope that the series will pick up steam, and an another season, so that I can see many more of Brooks’s magical words brought to vibrantly beautiful life.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles:” “Chosen”

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.