Plot: The lives of five young villagers change forever when a strange and powerful woman arrives, claiming one of them is the child of an ancient prophecy with the power to tip the balance between Light and Dark forever. They must choose whether to trust this stranger – and each other – with the fate of the world before the Dark One breaks out of His prison, and the Last Battle begins.
Review: Fantasy has found success in recent years on the small screen. From His Dark Materials to The Witcher, there have been numerous epic book series that have found success in long-form adaptations on streaming platforms and cable networks. But, for every one of those winners and fan favorites, there are countless mediocre offerings like Netflix’s Cursed, BBC America’s The Watch, The Shannara Chronicles, and more. The line between intentional pulp like Xena: Warrior Princess and prestige productions like Game of Thrones is clear. Amazon has doubled down with their fantasy shows between the upcoming Lord of the Rings series and the long-awaited The Wheel of Time. Robert Jordan‘s novel series has already begun production on a second season with expectations for it to potentially last up to eight. But, is the sprawling story worth dedicating almost a decade of your time to?
Spread over 14 novels and set across four thousand years of history, there is plenty of complex mythology to populate the world of The Wheel of Time. Drawing on myths heavily influenced by Asian religions and philosophies, Robert Jordan’s books have enjoyed success as everything from video games to role-playing systems, but cinematic adaptations have failed for years. Now, Rafe Judkins (Chuck, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) has shepherded this series that has been in development since 2017. Prime Video has been advertising the series fairly heavily and is ambitiously premiering three episodes this weekend. It will be apparent to most viewers by that third episode whether this series is really worth committing to. Odds are most of you will have one of two reactions: indifference at the wooden acting and mediocre special effects or disdain at yet another fan-favorite franchise failing to live up to the potential of the source material.
The Wheel of Time novels have had the benefit of thousands of pages to explain the ins and outs of the fantasy world, but this series drops you in with minimal exposition. We are forced to quickly determine who the various factions are, their importance to the plot, and how magic impacts everything. Within the first episodes, we learn that only women are able to wield magic while it drives men crazy. A sect of sorcerers known as the Aes Sedai is drawn to find one person, a Chosen One, who is also being hunted by evil creatures as well as government agents. Moraine (Rosamund Pike), a powerful Aes Sedai, believes that person could be one of four people she finds in a single village. Among them are Rand (Josha Stradowski), Egwene (Madeleine Madden), Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), and Mat (Barney Harris).
When their village is attacked by monsters, the quartet leaves with Moiraine and her aide Lan Mondragoran (Daniel Henney). This fellowship begins their quest as a fractured group who distrust one another and the witch leading them. The series then follows their journey across the landscape as they encounter friends, foes, and learn how their fate may play into whether the world at large is saved or destroyed. So, basically, it is typical fantasy fodder pitting good versus evil with attractive young people caught in the middle. The problem I consistently found over the six episodes made available for this review is how derivative the entire production looked. Echoing everything from The Lord of the Rings to The Witcher, The Wheel of Time features bards singing songs, sweeping landscape shots, and characters paired off and divided during the course of their quest. In short, there truly isn’t much you haven’t seen before in this series which lends it to feeling derivative of everything that came before it, therefore undermining the quality of the source material.
The Wheel of Time writer’s room includes fantasy veterans like The Clarkson Twins (His Dark Materials, See) and Dave Hill (Game of Thrones) along with others brand new to scripting. On the directing end, the first season is helmed by Sanaa Hamri, Wayne Yip (Prime’s Lord of the Rings series), Salli Richardson-Whitfield (Altered Carbon), and Uta Briesewitz. Briesewitz helms the first two episodes and brings her experience on Westworld and Stranger Things to shape the visual tone of this series but cannot help but feel all too similar to the work she and the other directors have done before. Even the score by Lorne Balfe feels eerily similar to his excellent work on HBO’s His Dark Materials. It is starting to feel redundant naming the same handful of shows over and over again in this review, but that is how the series feels. The Wheel of Time is too accomplished to be a total wash but not nearly distinct enough to set itself apart from everything else on TV these days.
I found myself conflicted throughout my viewing of The Wheel of Time. In some episodes, the quality of the production values is excellent with the location shooting in Prague offering a tangible feel similar to Peter Jackson’s shots of New Zealand in his Tolkien films. But, this is quite often offset by mediocre special effects that undermine the quality of the cinematography on display. Practical make-up effects on some monsters are impressive and then ruined by sub-par CGI. The actors, aside from Rosamund Pike and Daniel Henney, are forgettable and generic. The fact that Barney Harris departed at the end of season one to be recast by Donal Finn should be a testament to how interchangeable these characters are. The Wheel of Time ends up as a disservice to Robert Jordan’s books. What could have been a Dune-level masterpiece ends up a middle-of-the-road offering that fails to live up to its potential.
The Wheel of Time premieres on November 24th on Prime Video.