- Series name:The Wheel of Time
- Creator:Rafe Lee Judkins
- Network:Amazon Prime
- Broad casting:Fridays
- Rating: 3.5 StarsClick here to rate 1Click here to rate 2Click here to rate 3Click here to rate 4Click here to rate 5
For a book series that has reportedly sold 90 million copies worldwide – which is more than the entire population of Germany – “The Wheel of Time” sure has a low profile.
I have yet to meet anyone who’s even heard of Robert Jordan’s novels, let alone read them. Of course, there’s a chance that every single person in Germany has read them and I’m not hanging out with enough Germans. But I suspect it’s more likely that its fans don’t tend to mingle that much. Also, I tend to avoid the “sci-fi/fantasy” section of bookstores the way Donald Trump avoids tax returns and, well, bookstores.
The 14 books in “The Wheel of Time” series were published between 1990 and 2013, and various studios have sought to bring the franchise to the screen over the years. Jordan himself – real name James Oliver Rigney Jr., who I am contractually obliged to point out served two tours of duty as a helicopter gunner in the Vietnam War – died in 2007 and his series was completed posthumously by another writer, based on his outline.
Now, Amazon Studios has succeeded where the likes of Universal failed and brought one of the worst-titled franchises in human history to our small screens – “The Wheel of Time” sounds more like a long-forgotten Chuck Barris quiz show than the next “Game of Thrones,” which is what Amazon big kahuna Jeff Bezos hopes it will be.
The eight-part first season (work is already underway on season 2) has arrived ahead of next September’s no-doubt equally lavish adaptation of the one fantasy epic to rule them all, “The Lord of the Rings.” And if either or both fail to draw in viewers, it’s safe to assume someone at Amazon Studios will be taking a one-way trip to space courtesy of Blue Origin.
The Amazon philosophy
At the moment, if I had to grade Amazon Prime in comparison to its two main global competitors (Netflix and Apple TV+) in terms of producing original content, I’d have to put it third. I mean, what exactly is an “Amazon Original”? That identity issue manifests itself in the company ident: While on the main Amazon logo on the website and packaging, the arrow goes from the A to the Z, on Amazon Originals it runs from Z to G. It’s as if they’ve taken the basic Amazon concept and tried to shoehorn it into something else – and it’s not quite fitting.
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Clearly, money is no object. But what appears to be missing at TV Camp Bezos is a philosophy that guides the type of series it wants to make (other than, presumably, ones that don’t require people to take toilet breaks). We know that, initially, Amazon went all-in for the “prestige drama” with the likes of “Transparent,” “Patriot,” “Fleabag” and “The Man in the High Castle.” Right now, I’m struggling to see a clear vision – though, in fairness, it has created one of the best series of the year in “The Underground Railroad.”
That leaves us with some big questions about “The Wheel of Time,” which is reportedly one of the most expensive TV series ever made ($10 million per episode). These include: Is it any good? Who is the target audience? Is it clear where the huge budget went? And, most importantly, did the show’s star, Rosamund Pike, really name her two sons Solo and Atom?
I generally like to read a book before watching an adaptation. But I also like to avoid books that include maps, glossaries and character names that make you weep for the poor copy editors (just a few examples from “Wheel”: Nynaeve al’Meara, Matrim Cauthon and Egwene al’Vere). Oh, and which begin with sentences like “The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend,” as book 1, “The Eye of the World,” commences.
That’s why “Game of Thrones,” with all of its dragons, sexposition and monstrous creatures like the White Walkers, Krakens and Joffrey, never appealed. And why I approached the adaptation of “The Wheel of Time” with the wariness of a bomb-disposal expert.
Pike plays Moiraine Damodred, a legendary sorceress who has the ability to channel the “One Power” – and with that one short sentence, you should already be able to tell immediately whether “The Wheel of Time” is in your wheelhouse.
The challenge with fantasy series is being able to entice viewers despite an awful lot of world-splaining initially and basically asking certain characters to break the golden rule of “show don’t tell” and become a supernatural Basil Exposition.
In return for their patience, viewers will then receive epic battles, absorbing characters wrestling with both good and evil, and the kind of sheer spectacle you just don’t get with your average episode of “Law & Order.”
If you haven’t worked it out yet, I arrived in Two Rivers, where our action begins, with all the enthusiasm of a cow at a steak house. Yet I was genuinely entertained by what followed, in a land that will be familiar to fans of “GoT,” “The Witcher” et al – a world dominated by swords, sorcery and special effects. The tough part is getting through all of that world-splaining in episoode 1, but I’d say it’s worth it.
This is a series where the lavish budget is hard at work in every shot, whether that be in the wholly believable cityscapes and impressive sets, or the battle scenes where we see the supernatural powers of the Aes Sedai – the sorceresses in this anti-Gilead where women call the shots. (Robert Jordan never stipulated a time or gave his world a name, but fans christened it Randlands, after one of the central characters.)
The biggest difference between “GoT” and “Wheel” is how surprisingly wholesome and straightforward the latter is, certainly in the six episodes I’ve seen.
This is part “Lord of the Rings” saga, part YA coming-of-age tale and part Enya concert (reader, I shall not be buying the soundtrack), with nods to the spirituality of “The Chronicles of Narnia” and, for me, Guillermo del Toro’s masterful “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
That wholesomeness extends to the series’ approach to sex. Unlike “GoT,” which only had to see a torchlight to position a writhing couple beneath it, “The Wheel of Time” – and there’s a very good reason I’m not referring to that in acronym form – is a decidedly chaste affair.
That may be a turnoff for youngsters whose elder siblings presumably picked up some very odd sex tips from “GoT,” such as to always discuss your plans for world domination during sexual congress. However, “Wheel” still earns its 16+ rating thanks to some joltingly violent moments. If it weren’t for these startling moments of bloodletting, the show it reminded me of the most was the BBC series “Merlin,” which turned an ancient legend into delightful family viewing.
What I particularly liked is that the most interesting characters are all women over the age of 25. Most obviously, there’s Moiraine, a Zen-like figure who frequently looks so pale, you have to refrain yourself from adjusting your TV.
In this tale of good of evil, of light and darkness, her sorceress is Gandalf without the pointy hat and staff, on a quest to defeat “the Dark One” with a group of more demographically appealing youngsters – one of whom she believes to be the “Dragon Reborn,” who will lead the fight against said archvillain and determine the fate of the whole world. Of course.
There are several other great female characters as the series progresses, but Bezos would probably put me on an Amazon blacklist if I revealed anything about them, and I’m kind of addicted to those parcel deliveries.
What I can reveal is that, before you can say “Bilbo Baggins,” Moiraine and her intrepid young gang are off on horseback – there’s an awful lot of horse riding through the forests and plains of the Czech Republic, where the series was shot – trying to stay one step ahead of the Trollocs, Fates and other loathsome creatures that are the prerequisite of every fantasy epic and GOP convention.
I always find Pike an engaging presence on screen. I loved her in the Nick Hornby comedy series “State of the Union” with Chris O’Dowd, for instance, but think her best performance came in the underrated 2018 film “A Private War,” about American war correspondent Marie Colvin, when she had to reveal a steeliness that also helps her here. An appreciation of the actress’ skills will certainly come in handy for viewers here, as she is at the heart of this particular “Wheel.”
And while I’m sure the series will broaden its range of characters as the seasons progress – after all, there are 14 books to get through – I already like the eclectic composition of the young cast, with actors coming from across the globe to play them. This means that, unlike with “GoT,” we’re not constantly thinking: “Now, what Shakespeare production did we see him in?”
If you’re a fan of the fantasy genre, I’m sure there’s plenty to enjoy here. But in some ways, this may be perfect for viewers like your correspondent, as it serves as a kind of “greatest hits” of fantasy epics (working title: “Look Who’s Tolkien”): Ancient prophecies, dragons, sorceresses, bad folk songs, color-coded societies, woodland chases, mountain treks, occasionally clunky lines, naïve heroes, ferocious monsters who can destroy anything except for our protagonists – they’re all here. And I’m happy to go along for the (horse) ride.
No, the series hasn’t made me want to read the books. But it’s at least made me want to discuss them the next time I’m in Germany.
Finally, I cannot let the week go by without mentioning Fox News loudmouth Laura Ingraham. After her recent on-air “YOU” discussion, a lifetime membersip to Densa is surely in the post. But these people – Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, etc. – are making the role of satirists impossible: It is really hard to turn people into figures of ridicule when they are clearly so happy to do the job themselves.
Three episodes of “The Wheel of Time” are out now on Amazon Prime, with new episodes dropping every Friday until December 24.