Way back in the 90s I knew two different people who had a handful of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time novels in their cars at all times. It’s possible the titles changed as new books were acquired. Being a fantasy fan, I asked if they were any good.
“The last few have been absolutely terrible,” I was assured on both occasions. “But I have to know how it pans out.”
The new Amazon series The Wheel of Time cuts to the heart of the matter by being terrible right out of the gate. Not in a truly egregious manner, but in that soft, generic, rote kind of way that’s boring without being outright risible. It’s the sort of terrible that can lull you into thinking it might get good any episode now, and so you settle into a couch stupor and before you know it, a page has fallen off the calendar and your life is no better for it.
The source novels are vast and sprawling, with over 10,000 pages to them and almost 3000 named characters, but boiled down by showrunner Rafe Judkins, it comes to this: in a somewhat matriarchal fantasy world that gets bonus points for racial diversity but still looks like a Renaissance Faire, women can use magic but men can’t, and the few guys who can are ruthlessly exterminated by the Aes Sedai, a kind of Bene Gesserit-esque order of women magicians. There is a prophecy that an ancient figure known as The Dragon will be reborn, and he will either save the world or destroy it.
In point of fact, The Dragon may have already been reborn, and so Aes Sedia member Moiraine (a bored Rosamund Pike on Gandalf duties) and her Warder (that’s bodyguard to you and me) Lan (Daniel Henney) head to the village of Two Rivers, where four candidates live: hunky Rand al’Thor (Joshua Stradowski), his girlfriend Egwene (Madeleine Madden), bruiser Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), and roguish Mat (Barney Harris). Which one is the prophesied saviour/scourge? Before anyone can figure it out (but even newcomers will, because it’s blindingly obvious) the forces of darkness are on the march, and Moraine gathers the photogenic foursome into, well, a kind of fellowship and they hie off in search of sanctuary.
A few complicating factors are thrown in, including religious zealots called the Children of Light and a gaggle of vaguely racist Romani/Irish Traveller analogues called Tinkers, but the main threat is the horde of Nazgul and Orcs—sorry, that’s Myrddraal and Trollocs—bearing down on our heroes. To be fair, the Trollocs are pretty gnarly and given to munching on spilled intestines from time to time, which puts them one up on Peter Jackson’s panto-villain henchmen in the Lord of the Rings flicks. They’re still just orcs with the serial numbers filed off, and only one of countless elements that will remind you of other, better, screen fantasy efforts.
Yet while The Wheel of Time may remind you of earlier works, it frequently fails to remind us that this thing has an apparent price tag of $10m an episode. The whole thing looks surprisingly cheap, with scant village sets, a notable lack of background performers, and lackluster, generic-looking production design. The effect is not a million miles away from what Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess used to accomplish on the reg and with a fraction of the budget back in the day, but at least those shows had a sense of humour.
The Wheel of Time does not; it takes its store brand fantasy ephemera very seriously, and if you can’t match that earnest tenor then God help you—the only joy you’ll find here is in mocking the proceedings. For all its high-mindedness, its talk of magic and prophecies and destiny, its reams of source material and convoluted mythology, the series feels lazy and dashed-off—a pastiche of better stuff. There are worse fantasy series and films out there, to be sure, but none of them were dumb enough to give their monsters a name that rhymes with “bollocks”.