The Wheel of Time on Amazon Prime
Let’s face it, this is a Big One for sci-fi/fantasy fans. The first three episodes of The Wheel of Time dropped on Amazon Prime, and I promptly watched all three. In the spirit of full transparency, let me say that while I quite enjoyed Robert Jordan’s first three books, I felt the series started to decline at that point and kept going south, such that my final word on the series (which I did finish in masochistic fashion) was that I wouldn’t recommend the time investment to anyone thinking about starting it. So why watch the show? My hope is that it greatly streamlines a heavily bloated series, cleans up the many gender issues, and gets rid of all the writerly tics (if I never see a braid get “tugged” I’ll nominate the show for an Emmy). I can’t tell yet if that’ll be the case, but here are my thoughts so far.
I’ll be curious as to how people unfamiliar with the WHEEL OF TIME books respond because it seems to me that it may seem more than a little derivative after the general population has already seen so much fantasy in the theater and on TV. The Trolloc attacks and chase scenes, for instance, are done decently enough, but they reminded me heavily of the orc attacks and chase scenes in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films. You even have a scene with the Trollocs stopped by a river crossing. Similarly, the “Eyeless One” or Fade being referred to as a “rider” and also given the ability to “make the Trollocs do anything” makes the Fade seem like a lesser Nazgul, while Moraine’s voice-over about the Third Age calls to mind Galadriel’s voice-over. Add in the shots of characters riding across isolated landscapes or walking in ancient city ruins filled with deadly shadows, and there’s a strong sense, at least early on, of been there, seen that in terms of both plot and visuals. There’s a fine line between inspiration, homage, and too-overt borrowing of image/narrative, and in my mind the show crosses over too often and too clearly to the last. The books’ many tropes were already familiar back when they came out, and now that we’ve had several decades of filmed fantasy (and a lot more books), I don’t think the show is doing itself any favors by so blatantly (consciously or unconsciously) mirroring the visuals of prior stories. Those visuals have other issues as well; the real-world landscapes are absolutely gorgeous, but other aspects of setting are surprisingly poor, with fake backdrops looking like obviously fake backdrops and town square festivals looking like a dispiritingly cheap Renaissance Faire. Given the money reportedly spent on the show, I was honestly shocked by the poor quality of some of the effects.
The show also isn’t helped, at least early on, by its characterization or its dialogue. The younger main characters have been aged up (if I’m remembering correctly — it’s been a long time), mostly it seems so they can have (undepicted) sex, which seems an odd reason. Otherwise, they feel at this point bland, unformed, and indistinguishable beyond their stock type (roguish irresponsible one, brooding pining one, grieving simmering one, bitter angry one, etc.). Honestly, they look and feel like they could have accidentally walked off the set of any CW show and into this one while the cameras were rolling. The older characters, Moiraine and the “gleeman” Thom fare better as characters, but Moiraine is saddled with a lot of expository and/or portentous monologuing (and not in a good, fun way).
As for the plot of The Wheel of Time, well, there’s a lot of it. We get a brief introduction to the young characters and their roles (Mat’s a gambler, Egwene and Rand are an item until they’re not, Perrin’s in love with his wife), then their village is fighting for their lives under a Trolloc attack, then they’re fleeing chased by Trollocs, then they’re being chased by a big shadow, followed by a lot more “then’s.” This actually feeds into the above characterization problem since the characters don’t have much time to breathe, to simply be who they are, and so we as an audience don’t get a sense of who they are either, making it hard to care about what happens to them. A few times one also gets the sense of things being checked off because of the frenetic pace, so a stopover in a city seems to only pop up to get a knife into the hands of one of the characters. I’m also not a fan of what seems to me to be a wholly unnecessary fridging. Finally, a few logistical issues, minor though they were, pulled me out of the story. As, for instance, how trollocs could keep pace over short runs with galloping horses but then one couldn’t run down one of the characters who was on foot, disoriented, and somewhat battered. Or how some generic Trolloc wounded Moiraine with a thrown weapon, but then as she oh-so-slowly pulled together her magic to kill them all, instead of throwing more weapons at her they all ran (apparently slowly) toward her.
It may sound like I hated The Wheel of Time. I didn’t. It isn’t a bad show per se. Something like, say, Le Brea. But in an odd way, Le Brea is so bad, it’s actually entertainingly so. I marvel at how bad it is. The Wheel of Time, meanwhile, is neither bad nor good. It inhabits that dull between-world of “meh.” That’s the bad news. The good news is that with 14 books to work from, one has to imagine something good can be crafted from just so much raw material. That isn’t the case yet, but I’ll give it a bit more time. Not fourteen seasons, though. I learned my lesson the first time around.