What do you get if you cross The Lord Of The Rings and Merlin with just a hint of A Knight’s Tale?
It’s always tricky trying to form an impression of a twelve-part series from the first episode alone. Most of the episode is spent, inevitably, explaining everyone’s relationship to everyone else and setting the plot in motion. The most important question is, of course, will watching this first episode make you want to watch the second one? To which the answer is, yeah, probably, especially when it’s cold and wet outside and the cinema is so far away.
Much of this opening outing treads fairly familiar ground, featuring characters we’ve seen before doing things we’ve seen them do elsewhere. There’s nothing truly shocking or unexpected to grab the attention in the way some Netflix series, dependant on getting their audience desperate to watch the next episode immediately, have managed. However, there are elements of world-building that are a bit more interesting and a bit different. The series’ take on the leadership of ‘the Shieldlands’ and the place of certain mythical creatures among them move beyond the bog-standard, seen-it-all-before fantasy setting, and have the potential to grow into something really interesting as the series progresses.
The production values on the series are fairly high, with the CGI more or less holding up. The landscapes, shot on location in the north east, are particularly wild and evocative and give the series a real grounding to build its fantasy layers upon. The setting is the deliberately vague and mythical ‘Shieldlands’, which allows the show to include a diverse cast (with a rich concoction of varying accents) without anyone tearing their hair out over historical inaccuracy. The production design takes its inspiration from Anglo-Saxon designs (just as the design for Rohan in The Lord Of The Rings did) without adhering slavishly to any specific historical period, which allows the team to include such intriguing structures as the Quidditch pitch come amphitheatre come gallows that features in the climax of this first episode.
There’s some tastefully spilled blood here, with plenty of feuding old acquaintances and a general tendency to solve one’s problems by executing people, but so far the tone is really more Riders of Rohan than Game Of Thrones (though of course, this may change over the course of the series). If you’ve ever enjoyed The Last Kingdom or Merlin, then this show might be for you, and if you have any interest in fantasy television, then it’s more than worth a look based on this initial instalment. Whether it lives up to the promise of its more unusual elements or settles into a more bland fantasy action series, only time will tell.
Beowulf: Return To The Shield Lands airs on ITV on Sunday the 3rd of January at 7pm.