The Shannara Chronicles S1E01 “Chosen” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on 5Star, Thursdays at 9pm
Writers: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar
Directors: Jonathan Liebesman
Essential Plot Points:
- We’re introduced to Shannara’s world through Amberle, a young female Elf who’s running a Gauntlet for the chance to become “Chosen”. It appears she’s the first female ever to attempt this dangerous challenge, where participants race through a forest blindfolded with their hands tied behind their back. (How come this isn’t an Olympic sport – ed?)
- Upon winning, a Chosen’s task is to protect the Ellcrys, the sacred tree standing tall above the Elven homeland that’s sealed away a demonic threat for thousands of years. Or so the folklore goes, in any case. But is it just folklore?
- When Amberle goes to touch the Ellcrys and solidify her place as a new Chosen, she receives terrifying visions suggesting that the supposed mythology may in fact be a dangerously real threat.
- As Amberle’s visions are sparked, a near-frozen man wakes up in a faraway cave, ambiguously claiming that “It has begun” with a flourish of his impressive magic sword.
- Meanwhile, a half-elf named Will sets off on a journey to become a healer after failing to save his Mother from death. He carries “Elf stones” with him, said to contain magical powers, and not necessarily of the good kind.
- Still worrying about her vision, Amberle steals away from a celebratory party to confront the Ellcrys again. There’s no improvement – this time she sees herself murdering her boyfriend. It’s this vision that leads her to believe that she needs to leave her homeland and seek help further afield.
- Will is already out of his depth and he’s barely stepped away from his front door; he’s nearly killed by a troll, only to be saved by a mysterious girl called Eretria. She takes him to her “home”, drugs him, and steals all of his stuff – all in all a great start to their friendship. To Will’s dismay, she has, of course, taken the elf stones with her.
- The Ellcrys suddenly begins to show signs of illness, and the man from the cave, a druid named Allanon, turns up at the King’s doorstep to confirm that it is dying, and that the seal holding back the demons will break when the last leaf falls.
Based on Terry Brook’s The Sword of Shannara trilogy of novels (many Shannara books came after that but the Sword Of… trilogy started it all), The Shannara Chronicles introduces us to a world where humans as we know them are but a distant memory and the threat of the demonic is a real one. Shannara is supposedly what Game of Thrones is to HBO: MTV’s own epic fantasy, and has been compared as such by critics. Although it stands well by itself, pitting it against that TV giant seems unfair. Maybe fans could argue that the original novels can stand side-by-side with RR Martin’s work, but Shannara’s TV adaption gets waylaid by its need to appeal to a ”young adult” demographic too much for it to be considered “the new GoT”. So putting such unhelpful comparisons aside and judging the show on its own merits, Shannara’s first episode has good a establishing plot and interesting characters to carry it along.
The premiere certainly gets through a lot, from introducing its plethora of protagonists to explaining the basic lore to the audience. There’s a focus on Amberle, who seems to suffer a little from “beautiful Princess protagonist who’s been chosen for a higher purpose” syndrome, although in her defence, she did choose to be Chosen to a certain extent: the horrifying visions of a terrible future are just an unfortunate side-effect. Despite that, she manages to come across as a headstrong young woman who knows what she wants and is willing to go the distance to get there, even if it means knocking her boyfriend out with a huge sword to do it.
Then there’s Will, a half-elf who so far seems to have nothing but a great deal of misfortune coming his way. In this first episode alone, his Mother passes, he gets attacked by a troll and has most of his personal belongings stolen by a rogue female, Eretria. For his sake, we hope things perk up a bit for him soon. He seems like an easy-going character, if not a little “gullible pretty-boy”. Don’t trust the girl just because she’s nice to look at, Will! Also, his muted reaction to his Mother’s death comes across as strangely cold, but then people deal with grief in different ways. Maybe Will’s just channelling his grief into his determination to travel further afield and become a healer. A noble path to choose, but you have to wonder if he’ll manage to get anywhere near reaching the end of it? Taking the magic elf stones that supposedly led his Father to an early grave probably wasn’t the best start.
Speaking of magic, we find out that it used to be commonplace until the so-called “War Of The Races”, when it seems all magic and its users died out, leaving only folklore and fairy tales behind. For reasons yet unexplained, the King decided to keep the idea of magic confined to these stories – why is that? Not to mention, the rusted remains of a helicopter sitting abandoned in a field (and the show’s opening title sequence) tell us that this was, in fact, once our world, a long time ago, where magic certainly isn’t commonplace – so how does it all tie together? It’s made us want to know more about the world we’re being introduced to, and helps separate Shannara from a typical fantasy affair into something a little different.
This isn’t the only way that Shannara plays with familiar fantasy tropes, though. If you took away the Elven ears, there are times the episode felt more like a modern day teen drama, with eye-rollingly cheesy dialogue like, “Speaking of loyal dogs, how’s your boyfriend?” thrown into the mix, set to incongruent dreamy techno music in the background to boot. It was more than a little jarring, and felt like it hadn’t quite decided what genre it was trying to be at times. Fantasy outwardly, teen drama inwardly? Maybe this will settle as the series goes on, but with Shannara being geared towards a young adult demographic, the teen romance probably isn’t going to vanish any time soon.
Overall, though, this first episode is a compelling start to a new series, as long as you don’t go into it expecting the new Game of Thrones. It takes familiar fantasy and tweaks them just enough to create something new and interesting. The characters have enough intrigue so far to keep you watching, (why is Amberle seeing visions where nobody else is? What’s Will’s place in all of this?) although hopefully as the series goes on we’ll see more depthto their stories and personalities.
- A fairly strong opening episode that does a good job establishing characters and basic plot.
- There’s a lot left open for potential world-building, including how magic and druids plays a role in this world, the different types of mythological species – demons, for example.As protagonists go, Amberle looks to be a good role model so far: headstrong, independent and willing to take risks.
- With bright, vivid colours, gorgeous scenery and some decent CGI, Shannara is a stunning show to look at.
- The modern music cues can be jarring.
- Sometimes the dialogue can rank a little too high on the “cheese” factor, turning what should be fantastical Elven people into Beverley Hills 90210 teenagers. It pulls you out from the fantasy genre Shannara puts itself across as, making it a less immersive experience.
- Some aspects of the plot seem clichéd; the “chosen for a higher purpose” schtick can be found everywhere you look, nowadays.
And The Random:
- The Shannara Chronicles as a series of novels had been around for 30 years before finally getting picked up as a TV series.
- Shannara is filmed on location in New Zealand, and it shows – the scenery is absolutely stunning.
- MTV was joined by Jon Favreau of Iron Man to help develop Shannara.
Review by Jessica Anson