This review contains spoilers.
Hipsters, eh? When they’re not preening their moustaches and making cardigans out of hemp, they’re capturing innocent people and sacrificing them to trolls. After last week’s haphazard instalment, The Shannara Chronicles’ latest offering wisely opts to focus primarily on the rescue of Eretria but takes a slightly different approach to the other 439 occasions someone has required rescuing this series, thanks to the newly introduced town setting of Utopia: a human settlement dedicated to living lives similar to humans in the twenty-first century.
As such, Utopia continues last week’s trend of heavily increasing the on-screen presence of the ‘human era’ in the show and as was the case with the high-school location in the previous episode, it doesn’t particularly work. Translating a traditional fantasy world from the pages of a book to a television screen is a challenging enough task in itself but attempting to create a land of elves, trolls and magic set in Earth’s far future is evidently even harder to do convincingly. Add to this MTV’s clear desire to market The Shannara Chronicles to its teen demographic and the result is forty minutes of television that feels so far away from the tone of not just the source material but also of its own preceding episodes.
Who could have predicted after watching the show’s opening two-parter that episode eight would feature a teenage rave complete with dance music and functioning lighting rig. The dilapidated high-school in last week’s Breakline was a stretch in terms of believability but still made sense within The Shannara Chronicles’ canon. However it’s very difficult to imagine an entire DJ set-up survived a series of global wars over many centuries in perfect working order. It’s a clumsy attempt to cram modern teen culture into the show and completely derails any progress the series was making. Hopefully this direction won’t influence producers of other fantasy television programmes; I can’t imagine Tyrion and Varys throwing ecstasy-fuelled shapes to Skrillex tunes in The Great Pyramid of Meereen would go down awfully well.
Admittedly, the Star Trek: The Original Series screening scene will have many viewers’ inner geek screaming with glee (myself included) but from the perspective of a person trying to invest in The Shannara Chronicles’ narrative, it’s a moment that comes entirely out of nowhere and serves very little purpose. The booing of Spock due to his elf-like ears was however, hilarious.
The anachronisms aren’t the only issues for Utopia, with character development also treading on decidedly shaky ground. Suffering most is newly appointed elf king, Ander. The ex-party boy has made engaging emotional growth over the past few episodes, however was short-changed last week due to a distinct lack of screen-time, despite providing the episode’s strongest storyline. These issues are worsened in Utopia with only a couple of short sequences spent covering Ander’s ascension to the throne. It’s nowhere near enough time to genuinely play out the attempted plotline of self-doubt and subsequent discovery of resolve and the entire arc feels both rushed and undervalued.
Meeting their demise this week is perennial bastard Cephalo who, despite committing a series of atrocities such as slavery and sexual assault, once again forges a grudging partnership with the show’s protagonists. Undoubtedly one of The Shannara Chronicles’ most interesting characters, James Remar plays Cephalo with aplomb and although his departure is a shame, the Rover had little more to offer the show. Whilst his climactic decision to stay behind in order to fight off Mumford and Sons and allow the central trio to escape concludes Cephalo’s arc with a satisfying moment of redemption, his sudden gush of platitudes and fondness takes the idea a bit too far and is all rather out of character. The man is no rogue thief or loveable bandit, he’s been a bonafide villain, frequently demonstrating sadistic and abusive behaviour and subsequently, the attempt to inspire viewer sympathy for the character in his final moments is baffling.
Preventing Utopia from becoming a complete waste of time is the titular town’s hipster leader Tye (his surname hopefully being ‘Dye’) who manages to at least provide the episode with an effective bad guy. Actor Josh McKenzie treads the line between creepy and charismatic brilliantly, always knowing when to emphasise one over the other and although it’s not difficult to see his true intentions for Eretria well in advance, he at least does a noble job of keeping the audience guessing for the duration. Quite why he insists on wasting bullets the way he does is a mystery, you’d think ammunition would be pretty hard to come by in a world of swords and bows.
Clearly, we shan’t be seeing Tye again, as The Shannara Chronicles continues its tradition of introducing promising characters but only keeping them around for a single episode, a fate that also befell elf-hunter Zora who seemed to have something to offer last week but is ruthlessly killed off-screen.
Disappointingly, Utopia is perhaps The Shannara Chronicles’ weakest offering yet. The show’s introduction of real-world locations and props has lacked the necessary subtlety and gradual integration that was required for it to succeed and instead, the episode feels a million miles away from the established ethos of the series up to this point. Even more worrying however is that episodes now seem to follow a set framework of events and the show as a result is in danger of becoming formulaic. Whether it’s ‘capture and rescue’ storylines, villains with a single-episode expiry period, the obligatory ‘topless scene of the week’ or Wil losing his bloody stones again, The Shannara Chronicles has become a predictable entity. After a mid-season run of entertaining episodes, the show feels devoid of entertaining new ideas and is playing for time until its finale where, hopefully, it can rediscover its form.
Read Craig’s review of the previous episode, Breakline, here.