Review: The Shannara Chronicles, “Chosen” (Pilot Episode)

If you read this blog often, you will remember that I did not have high hopes for MTV’s Shannara Chronicles, which adapts Terry Brooks’ Elfstones of Shannara into a TV series. Now at last the pilot has premiered, and despite my very low expectations, I gave it a try in the hopes my long quest for some good fantasy TV would be satisfied.

The official logo for MTV's Shannara ChroniclesSo what did I think?

Well, it’s not good news.

First, a little backstory for those who are new to Shannara.

The Shannara Chronicles is based on the Elfstones of Shannara, which was the second book of the original Shannara trilogy (or quartet if you count First King).

The heart of the story is the Ellcrys, a magical tree which seals away the forces of the Void, otherwise known as Demons, in a magical prison called the Forbidding. The Ellcrys is maintained by a sacred sect of Elves called the Chosen, but when the Ellcrys sickens, Demons begin to escape, and the Chosen are murdered.

Only one remains, Amberle Elessedil, having fled the Elven capitol of Arborlon shortly beforehand.

But though Amberle is the main character, the chief protagonist is Wil Ohmsford, scion of the legendary Shannara bloodline. Directed by the enigmatic druid Allanon, Wil must protect Amberle as she embarks on a quest to restore the Ellcrys.

Cover art for The Elfstones of Shannara, the second book in the original Shannara trilogyAlong the way, they also cross paths with and are joined by Eretria, a cocky young Rover (Gypsy) girl.

The TV series follows the same basic story, but right away, there are differences.

Now, anyone who knows me knows I’m not a stickler for continuity or staying slavishly true to source material. Stories change and evolve; I accept that.

But a lot of the changes in The Shannara Chronicles are just change for change’s sake. They serve no purpose; they don’t make the story more interesting or more suitable for television. Often they make the story less interesting.

For example, in the TV series, the rules surrounding the Chosen and the story of Amberle and her time in the order are completely different. A sacred and dignified ritual is transformed into some bizarre Hunger Games-esque bloodsport, and Amberle’s reasons for fleeing Arborlon are totally different, robbing the story of a crucial piece of foreshadowing and the heart of Amberle’s story.

And hey, let’s throw in some random sexism because why not!

Similarly, for no reason at all, the leader of the Demons is now not actually a Demon.

Amberle, Wil, and Eretria in The Shannara ChroniclesWhat? Why?

Seriously, why? That doesn’t serve any purpose at all. It does, however, defang the Demons quite a bit, and whatever other flaws Brooks’ early works might have had, his Demons were bloody terrifying. The fact that their leader is now a human just completely robs them of their alien horror.

The one change that is positive is that we see a lot more of the ruins of the old world — our world — than were in the books. In the books, the remnants of the old world are rarely seen, especially in the earlier parts of the series, but the fact the Four Lands are not some alternate world but actually our distant future is at this stage of the story the main thing distinguishing Shannara from any other generic high fantasy story, so I think they were smart to play it up.

A shame that it is purely a visual element and does not impact the story. Not so far, anyway.

Visuals are one aspect of the Shannara Chronicles that I cannot praise enough. This show is beautiful. The special effects and art design are second to none. It’s an absolute feast for the eyes from beginning to end.

Beyond that, though, I find little to compliment.

My biggest worry when I found out that MTV was doing this series was that it would be all flash and no substance, and unfortunately, I was right to worry.

The ruins of the old world in The Shannara ChroniclesEven by Hollywood standards, the cast of the Shannara Chronicles is absurdly pretty and clean. I’m not a fan of the school of fantasy where everything is brown and everyone is dirty, but this is the opposite extreme. I was particularly distracted by the fact that Amberle’s uncles appear to be approximately six months older than her.

Also, what is with the music? I don’t want to hear New Agey pop music in the middle of a medieval fantasy.

The dialogue is similarly entirely too laden with modern slang and idioms. And even that aside, it’s still pretty bad dialogue. Not Lucas bad, but bad.

Of all the show’s weaknesses, though, the biggest is the core cast, none of whom are particularly inspiring. Wil is just a pretty boy with no personality. Allanon is the biggest disappointment by far, being about thirty years younger and a hundred times more handsome than he ought to be while completely lacking the mystery and intensity I associate with the last druid.

I’m not sure how I’d rate Eretria. I find her absolutely insufferable, but I did in the book, too, so maybe that’s a win for the show?

Amberle is the only bright spot. She’s not great, but she offers no cause for complaint, at least. To borrow a phrase from my father, she’s the only one I can’t hear acting.

Poppy Drayton as Amberle Elessedil in The Shannara ChroniclesA lot of the minor cast members are actually pretty good, too — Wil’s uncle, Flick, is a pitch perfect match for how he was in the book — but being minor cast members, we don’t see enough of them for it to matter.

So in the end The Shannara Chronicles has almost exactly matched my expectations. I wish I had been wrong, but I was not.

If I could watch the show for free, I might give it another episode or two to see if it improves, but so far the only way to see it I’ve found is to buy episodes on Google Play, and it’s not worth the money. The pilot was two dollars and two hours that I dearly want back.

Overall rating: 4/10

Why is it so bloody hard to find decent fantasy on TV? It’s so rare to begin with, and what fantasy shows do exist are rarely of any quality. Once Upon a Time is wildly inconsistent, and it spends most of its time in our world, so even at its best it doesn’t entirely scratch the fantasy itch. The Shannara Chronicles, well, you just read the review. I don’t have any way of watching Game of Thrones, but for all its hype, the more I hear about it, the less appealing it sounds.

Sci-fi TV has a long and storied history of greatness. Why can’t television get fantasy right?

Shannara on MTV: I Have a Bad Feeling

In case you weren’t already aware, there is a television series in the works based on Terry Brooks’ sprawling Shannara series of fantasy novels. The series will be titled “The Shannara Chronicles” and is being produced by MTV. It’s scheduled for release sometime this year.

A map of the Four Lands, setting of the Shannara novelsThis feels like the sort of thing I should be celebrating. I’m desperate for some quality high fantasy television, a terribly under-served niche, and I’ve been a Shannara fan since I was a kid. But there are several things about this that are just making my heart sink.

Firstly, MTV. Need I say more? If I was going to make a list of networks I trust to make a quality, serious fantasy series, MTV would be waaaay near the bottom.

I don’t like judging products by their pedigree too much, and I won’t say that MTV’s involvement means this series is doomed, but it doesn’t inspire one to confidence.

The other main problem is what they’ve picked as the source material. The series will be based on The Elfstones of Shannara, the second book of the original trilogy. It’s a seemingly arbitrary choice, and it strikes me as a pretty poor one.

It’s not the worst book they could have chosen, but I’m only saying that because The Wishsong of Shannara exists. They’ve chosen to throw themselves into a worst of both worlds scenario by starting in the middle of the story and not jumping ahead enough to get to the really interesting Shannara stories.

Cover art for The Elfstones of Shannara, the second book in the original Shannara trilogySee, the Shannara franchise begun as a supremely generic — if still well-executed — high fantasy story. The first book, The Sword of Shannara, was pretty much a pure Lord of the Rings rip-off. Over time, the Shannara series started to develop a lot more personality, incorporating aspects of magitech and science fantasy while also developing the history and culture of the Four Lands very well.

But that hadn’t yet begun in The Elfstones of Shannara. While it wasn’t as transparent a Tolkien knock-off as the first book, it was still a very generic high fantasy with little to distinguish it from the pack.

But it is book two, which means newcomers to the franchise will be lost as to why the Ohmsford family is so important or what the backstory of the world is. Unless MTV wants to butcher the history of the series and just ignore the events of the first book.

I’m also not sure how they intend to get a full TV series from one relatively short book, unless they want to stretch out the story endlessly, which would get boring very fast, or start over with a new cast and story every season, which seems very foolhardy from a marketing and financing perspective.

If they wanted to go to the original trilogy, I really think starting with Sword would have been the best bet, even if it is obviously similar to Lord of the Rings. It gives people a good introduction to the world of Shannara, and it was the best of the first three books, derivative or not.

Cover art for a compilation of the Heritage of Shannara seriesBut the really smart thing to do would have been to go with something even later in the franchise. The second major series, The Heritage of Shannara, was where the Shannara series really came into its own. It had a much bigger and more cohesive story, and it transformed the Four Lands into much more than a weak Middle-Earth knock-off.

As a four-part series with a huge cast and a lot of literal and metaphorical ground to cover, it also offers much more fodder for a full television series

If I had a magic wand, I’d do a TV series based on Genesis of Shannara, as it was by far the most original and powerful of Brooks’ novels, but its bizarre mash-up of high fantasy, urban fantasy, and post-apocalyptic sci-fi is probably a little too unusual for the average viewer. So Heritage seems like the best choice.

There are other compelling options. The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara would also make a good TV show. A wild adventure into the unknown to battle a lizard monster, a crazy witch, and a freaky Borg-esque supercomputer? I’d watch.

Really, there are so many better choices than Elfstones. I don’t understand what they were thinking. It doesn’t even feature the most interesting aspect of the entire Shannara franchise, the sword of truth itself.

I want to believe the Shannara TV series will be good, but there’s just so little to give me any hope right now.