Based on author Terry Brooks fantasy trilogy The Sword of Shannara, published between 1977 and 1985 and later vastly expanded, and developed for MTV by Smallville‘s Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, along with Iron Man‘s Jon Favreau serving as producer, the hope from the former music network is for this adaptation to be more akin to Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings than throwaway syndicated series such as Merlin or Legend of the Seeker.
To judge whether they have been successful, it is first necessary to get the lay of this new land. The Shannara Chronicles is an expansive story taking place thousands of years after the fall of humanity, which was followed by the rise of legions of Elves, Trolls, Druids and Demons. Magic infused the land and as the remnants of humanity’s world faded into the dust, fantasy creatures rose to the fore.
All things change, however, and as fantasy and magic once took man’s place, so have these things faded into legend once more. Magic has gone missing since the last of the Druids vanished. The Elves have their legends, but to the younger generations that’s all they are: legends of the past.
As the story opens, we find the Elves in the process of paying homage to one of their legends: the selection of the Chosen, a collective of seven who are selected to be guardians of the sacred Ellcrys, a massive tree that is the center of the Elves’ kingdom, and as legend has it, the prison holding all the Demons of the old world.
Amberle Elessedil (Unhallowed Ground‘s Poppy Drayton) is a determined and tough Elf princess set on proving her worth to her people and her proud father, King Eventine Elessedil (played by legendary fantasy star John Rhys-Davies) by placing among the Chosen.
Since a variation of this same story has been told throughout all time from Wonder Woman to The Hunger Games to Harry Potter, the audience already know the outcome before it happens; of course she will be Chosen, and of course she will be the one who uncovers the danger that hovers on the horizon, threatening the world they’ve made.
Meanwhile, across the world, the half human/half Elf Wil Ohmsford (Arrow‘s Austin Butler, all lips and wiry muscles in the MTV/CW style) has lost his mother but was told at her deathbed of the truth of his birth and he sets out on his path, which will no doubt lead him to a certain Elf princess and put him in the middle of the war to come.
He meets up with a Druid named Allanon (Spartacus and Arrow star Manu Bennett), just awakened from a long sleep who needs an apprentice, and wouldn’t you know this half-breed boy fits the bill perfectly. With all of the main players on the board, now the Ellycrys tree, which has shown signs of sickness by cracking open, oozing a blood-like sap from its skin, can start dying and letting loose all the evil it’s imprisoned for ages, tasking our heroes with putting right what is going so terribly wrong.
With so much of this story relying heavily on clichés present in fantasy tales seen and read many times over the past decades and the casting which isn’t anything so much as models from an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, this series has every reason not to work. And yet it does, at least, sufficiently to pique sufficient interest to wish to return for at least the next episodes.
In spite of the lightweight casting of the younger stars, Bennett and Rhys-Davies hold their own so well it helps make up for the pretty boys and girls littering the cast. The gravity of these veterans helps carry much of what the younger stars have dropped. The newbies have much to learn, but given time they may actually rise to the occasion, perhaps even before the end of this first season of ten episodes.
With the pilot directed by Wrath of the Titans‘ Jonathan Liebesman, MTV has sunk considerable amounts of money into this series, and it is undeniably evident, from the gorgeous New Zealand backdrop (because where else would they film an epic fantasy series? Lord of the Rings started it and Legend of the Seeker and now The Shannara Chronicles have benefited from it) to the high-end makeup and effects, the money is definitely on the screen, and more than stands up to the extremely high definition photography.
The cast may not be top notch quite yet, but MTV, the stars and the writers are obviously approaching this more seriously than might have been expected given the reputation of the network, and it will be interesting to see where it all goes and if their ability matches their ambition. That we are willing to give a chance to something seen a hundred times before (with the awareness that Brooks laid out his story almost forty years ago, before many of his successors and imitators) says much beyond the audience’s need to see daring heroics triumph over evil and adversity.