The Shannara Chronicles episodes 1 & 2 review: Chosen

MTV's new Terry Brooks fantasy series, The Shannara Chronicles, looks terrific but is disappointingly all style and no substance...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 & 1.2 Chosen

Author and creator of the Shannara world, Terry Brooks, released his second volume of the series, The Elfstones Of Shannara in 1982. A year previously, a brand new cable channel called MTV was launched, centred on the best music videos the eighties had to offer. It’s very unlikely at that time that either of these entities, or their respective audiences, would have ever imagined crossing paths, yet thirty years later, here we are. The on-trend, image focused juggernaut MTV, having given up on playing actual music videos years ago, is now home to a television interpretation of a high-fantasy series of novels about magic and elves that started back in the seventies.

From the opening two-parter Chosen, it’s clear that The Shannara Chronicles will follow the plot of The Elfstones Of Shannara with reasonable accuracy, however as you might imagine, MTV has opted for a markedly different tone to that of the books. Whilst Terry Brooks’ works are certainly aimed at a teenage audience, they are comparable to a less-detailed Lord Of The Rings or a Game Of Thrones without the politics, nudity and beheading. The Shannara Chronicles however, is an über-polished, stylised appropriation of its source material that openly seeks to capitalise on the teen market left in the wake of The Hunger Games.

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Because of this, the initial fifteen minutes feel like an entirely different show to what follows. A group of unfeasibly good-looking teens (not a zit in sight) are put through an apparently deadly outdoor challenge where anything goes, during which a plucky, rebellious young girl comes out on top against all the odds. Then, with fans of The Hunger Games successfully captivated, the show switches gear fully into the fantasy genre where it remains for the next sixty minutes and presumably, the rest of the series.

Several other attempts are made to remodel the books to suit a 2016 audience but are equally unsuccessful. A clumsy stab at teen relationship issues is made with lead character and elf princess Amberle claiming she’s “not sure” about her boyfriend Lauren. The problem here is that leading up to this revelation, the couple are the very image of happiness, with both parties seeming to genuinely care for each other. Moreover, Lauren meets a bloody doom before the episode is through, ensuring that not only does the ‘troubled relationship’ plot-point come from nowhere, it also leads nowhere.

This is sadly a sign of things to come from the rest of the script which essentially comes off as a series of well-worn clichéd sound-bites strung together one after another. Not only is there a lack of originality but every attempt to be epic or foreboding falls into a mire of cheesiness. Even worse, Chosen absolutely rockets through its story from the very first minute, leaving the audience no time to become acquainted with the characters or the history of the setting, of which there is plenty. It’s consequently the responsibility of some out of place and jarring exposition-heavy dialogue to spoon-feed viewers what they need to know and fill in the many blanks. Anyone would be hard-pressed to come out of these two episodes genuinely caring about any of the characters introduced, such is the shallow background afforded to each one.

You’d also be forgiven for thinking that despite taking place in a kingdom named ‘The Four Lands’, all of the locations are situated within ten minutes of each other as almost every character has bumped into every other character by the end of this eighty-minute run and the journeys between locations seem to happen instantaneously with no consideration for the passing of time. While this may help The Shannara Chronicles maintain its face pace, it comes at the price of making ‘The Four Lands’ seem incredibly small and this hinders the epic and vast flavour that the show is obviously intended to have.

Happily, there are some positives to be found throughout the episodes, the most significant of which being that everything looks simply fantastic. The scenery, both computer-generated and on-location, is stunning and the brief references to the series’ post-apocalyptic setting are the most tantalising mystery offered so far. The costumes and props are continuously eye-catching and items such as Allanon’s sword are just bloody cool to watch. The demons too, ah the demons; easily the most visually impressive element of Chosen are the omnipresent villains whether it be leader Dagda Mor, the Changeling or the Fury, these villains look intimidating, sound menacing and hint at the rich history within the Shannara universe. All of this contributes to an on-screen world that feels like a vivid and intriguing visual feast. A cynical viewer may suggest that The Shannara Chronicles would actually be a better show if no one spoke.

Not that this is the fault of the cast it should be noted. The central group of young actors do well enough with the remit given and John Rhys-Davies is on hand to lend The Shannara Chronicles some old-school fantasy gravitas as the elf king. Gimli would be disgusted.

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Another welcome aspect of these opening episodes and hopefully a sign of things to come are the attempts made to add a darker, more adult shade to the show. Some of these attempts succeed and some definitely do not but the risk is worth applauding nonetheless. The sexual scenes in particular are dodgy at best and cringe-worthy fan service at worst. If the idea was to establish Amberle as a strong protagonist and female role-model, the ‘shower in the waterfall’ scene undermines that with its needlessness. Furthermore, Eretria’s seduction of Wil is about on par with porn movie dialogue.

However the moves made into gorier territory fare much better. Most of Chosen remains reasonably light with its lush green backdrops and pretty, ethereal music befitting of the show’s elven characters. It’s a genuine surprise therefore when Amberle experiences her first vision and is shown a bloody battlefield, flying demons and dying children. The presence of Dagda Mor with his scarred, pierced face and penchant for slaughtering teenagers also adds a welcome adult tint to an otherwise family-friendly affair.

Admittedly, The Shannara Chronicles is aimed at a specific audience, of which I’m not a member. But the fact remains that whilst the Terry Brooks’ novels were aimed at the young adult market, they could still be enjoyed by the not-so-young. It’s difficult to give the same plaudit to this TV adaptation, primarily due to its style over substance approach. The Shannara Chronicles’ biggest sin however is not the corny dialogue or the half-hearted attempts to ‘sex things up’, it’s that even before episode two, Chosen drags hugely because there’s nothing significant for viewers to really invest in.

The Shannara Chronicles…because not everyone is old enough to watch Game Of Thrones.