‘”The Dark One” – if we do not stop him now while he is weak, the whole world will turn to darkness.’ So begins the second series of another Amazon Prime fantasy epic, The Wheel of Time, and there are many genre cliches to come. The show is based on the nineties book series by Robert Jordan, and like the books, the TV show is a total incompetent rip-off of Lord of the Rings. Fans of The Wheel of Time books would argue that the plot is very different from Tolkien’s, but I can’t vouch for this because, even after watching two hour-long episodes of the new TV series, I still cannot say anything about the plot. I have no idea what’s going on. The main problem is the diction—the actors are inaudible. Unsurprisingly, the people I can hear are the great British stage actors Kate Fleetwood and Sophie Okonedo.
Most film and television actors don’t have the vocal training of stage actors, nor the gravitas. Of course you don’t need gravitas in TV generally, but you do if you’re delivering lines like, ‘The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills’. Ian McKellen could make a convincing effort with it, but Rosamund Pike sure can’t. Her presence in this series is baffling— she’s neither good enough nor famous enough to pull in viewers the way she was meant to. Perhaps she’s as big a name as Amazon could get. But her range is limited and she’s just not likeable. She tends to play cold and detached, like in Gone Girl, but that doesn’t work for a lead character. She has glassy, almost doll-like eyes which seem to refract emotion. There doesn’t seem to be much going on behind them.
So Rosamund Pike is a powerful magician-type named Moiraine who can channel a ‘force’ or ‘source’ or something. She lives at a Moroccan-style academy where she trains other young magicians. It seems as though she lost her powers in the last season, which may account for her foul mood and disdain for her colleagues. She sneers at her ‘warder’, a handsome stoic Japanese-inspired warrior who looks like he should be in charge. He’s miffed with Moiraine because she’s inexplicably treating him like a slave. He also looks grumpy, prompting Meera Syal to ask him, ‘Are you hungover?’ This line stands out somewhat amid all the other pseudo-Tolkien phrases. Another guy says to a pair, ‘you make me feel like the third wheel.’ Is that a play on the show’s title? And then there’s this line: ‘We are the heroes of today. It’s time we start acting like it.’ This stuff is worse than Marvel.
Another big problem for shows like this one is that, despite all the battles and swords, no one seems to be in mortal danger. At the end of the first episode Moiraine is ambushed by black wraiths with faces like piranhas. Her warder shows up just in time to stab the wraith but Moiraine has already been stabbed. The wraith then stabs the warder, giving him what is surely a mortal wound. He and Moiraine lay dying side by side, when suddenly the other magicians show up and save them. But these mortal wounds don’t seem to bother them much—in the next scene they’re sitting at the breakfast table looking a bit weak and sore, but otherwise fine. Compare that with The Lord of the Rings, which sees two main characters die in the first quest—or Game of Thrones which seems to kill off a main character every episode. Those shows have real stakes. Characters die and they don’t come back.
It’s hard to imagine why Jeff Bezos thought that The Wheel of Time was going to be a big money-maker. The book series has sold over 90 million copies worldwide, but generally fantasy series won’t attract your average TV viewer. Game of Thrones has probably tricked producers into thinking fantasy can be a box-office smash. Not many shows can replicate Game of Thrones’ success though. Average TV viewers are put off by dragons and men with long hair, but Game of Thrones seems to have transcended these genre cliches and become a sophisticated political drama. The Wheel of Time has made no effort to create a series that is going to attract any viewers except fans of the books. Ithas all the elements that fantasy-haters hate, and nothing to prove to them that fantasy can be for grown-ups too.
There’s also no chance of just dipping in without seeing the previous season. If you do (as I did), you will have absolutely no sense of character, place or plot. Nobody gives stand-out performances either. Compare that to Game of Thrones, from which there are probably a dozen memorable, interesting characters. Tyrion Lannister is an unforgettable character— Moiraine Damodred, not so much.