(image copyright MTV)
The series begins by introducing us to Amberle (Poppy Drayton)—an Elf princess who has slipped past her royal guards in order to participate in the Gauntlet, a grueling race in which the contestants must run through a forest blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs. The purpose of the race is to determine who will become the next members of an elite group known as the Chosen—the first seven to reach the finish line will be able to join. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to reveal that the princess completes the Gauntlet in time and takes her place among the Chosen.
The purpose of the Chosen is to protect a sacred tree known as the Ellcrys, which, according to legend, is part of a magical barrier that keeps an army of Demons imprisoned in a place known as the Forbidding. These days, however, no one believes in magic or Demons, and the position of the Chosen, while highly prestigious, is largely ceremonial.
Soon, we also meet the Half-Elf Wil (Austin Butler), who yearns to become a healer, and who comes into possession of three Elfstones upon the death of his mother. We see him set on horseback to journey to a bigger village where he can better learn the healing arts. We also learn that our story takes place in the Four Lands—apparently, our own Earth centuries after our present civilization has crumbled, leaving hulking ruins of our once great cities.
As Wil sets out, Amberle begins having troubling visions that are sent to her by the Ellcrys, and she flees her home, fearing what she has seen herself do in her visions. On the road, both Wil and Amberle in succession run afoul of Eretria (Ivana Baquero)—a Human Rover who tries with varying degrees of success to rob them. And as Wil and Amberle struggle on the road, the leaves of the Ellcrys begin to fall—releasing one by one the Demons that everyone believed to be apocryphal.
Overall, the production design of the series is quite good—the sets are well rendered, and the landscapes, a mixture of CGI and real locations, are often impressive. I was particularly struck by a scene of Amberle crossing a vast field dotted with derelict satellite dishes. The acting is decent—with veteran character actor John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) as King Eventine providing extra vigor and spark. I found the basic setup to be intriguing with each leaf on the sacred tree representing a Demon that could be freed to form an army, and the combined episode ended on an effective cliffhanger. Some of the dialog, however, was a little too expository in tone, and sometimes events were a little too convenient—Wil set out with his new mentor, a druid, to find a book of magic, and not only do they find it, but the book also tells them what to do next. The music, costumes, and characters types were all very reminiscent of the 80s, which I suppose makes sense considering when the book series began, but I would've liked to see a little bit of an update—at least in the first two categories. In terms of atmosphere, something about The Shannara Chronicles felt just a little bit flat, which I suppose only serves to point out just how challenging it is to develop a top-notch fantasy TV series—the pieces all appear to be here, but it's missing something in spirit. But there is potential here—Wil, Amberle, and Eretria are destined to be our main characters, and they haven't even begun to cohere yet. It will be interesting to see how things develop and if MTV can pull off the teenage Game of Thrones-style hit it is reportedly trying to create. If I had to give The Shannara Chronicles a grade, I would go with a B-. It's certainly not terrible, but it's also not spectacular.
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