Generally speaking when we’re shown a dystopian view of future Earth, there’s something innately recognisable about the people and the places they inhabit.
Sure they may be a whole world away from anything we know but there are enough touchstones for us to see ourselves, albeit a far murkier, dysfunctional version.
That’s not necessarily the case with The Shannara Chronicles, based on Terry Brooks series of fantasy novels, which gives us a future post-apocalyptic Earth, many thousands of years after the fact, that bears little resemblance to anything that came before it.
Granted humanity is still around in some form, as are the vestiges of their former glory with everything from the Seattle Space Needle to helicopters, ships and crushed buildings littered the now-avowedly naturalistic medieval landscape.
But they now share their world with dwarves, trolls, gnomes and elves, all of whom utilise magic or thuggery to get their way in a fairly brutalist societal set up that owes far to Lord of the Rings than anything we might recognise.
And while anyone with a fantasy-loving bone in their body will warm to the familiar tropes being trotted out, including magic, demons, the fate of the world hanging in the balance, and Chosen Ones (yup they’re actually called that) who alone can save the day, you may stop to wonder why pretty much every mainstay of fantasy literature is present and accounted for and how they emerged from a human-made apocalypse?
Were they there all along and we just ignored them? Did evolution really go all doollally wackadoodle and offer up all these hitherto mythical lifeforms as a slap in the face to humanity for coming close to annihilating themselves and the planet?
It’s hard to say and the show doesn’t really offer an explanation, which is not a dealbreaker since as The Walking Dead has shown, you don’t need to know how current circumstances came about to appreciate that they’re Not Good.
Even so, imaginative a premise though it is, and who doesn’t enjoy a clever take on things, it is odd being asked to accept that all these fantastical elements are taking place on Earth, even a future Earth.
It’s like Lord of the Rings got together with Planet of the Apes and had some oddly mixed-up, magic-inclined love child whose existence kind of makes sense but doesn’t really.
Still for all those discordant notes, the actual world building is nicely done.
Using New Zealand as a backdrop once again, The Shannara Chronicles gives us an immediate fully-formed sense of a world that has slipped into a comfortable dotage – the War of the Races far behind everyone, all the demons in the world locked up underground and kept there by a magical red-leafed tree, the Ellcrys and magic largely a thing of the past, save for a few hardy souls who Still Believe.
Among them is the druid Allanon (Manu Bennett who plays the role with grave intent and light touches of humour) who awakes after what he calls a “very long nap” in which he replenished his magical storehouse of powers to find the world in grave danger.
The Ellcrys is dying and as it does, each falling leaf signals a demon gaining their freedom, imperiling the peace of the Four Lands ruled over with wise beneficence by King Eventine Elessedil, an old friend of Allanon’s who is most definitely a believer and alarmed by the emergence of the very evil The Dagda Mor (Jed Brophy), a corrupted Elvin druid who essentially plays the role of Darth Vader meets Sauron and who grows stronger as the Ellcrys dies.
Wasting no time, Allanon sweeps in, summoning up the king’s granddaughter Amberle (Poppy Drayton), a princess in the Elvin kingdom of Arborlon and Will Ohmsford (Austin Butler) who is not the simple farmer boy he thought he was but rather a half elf/half human descendant of a powerful magical family, the Shannaras.
There are non-believers of course and those content to fiddle while Arborlon and the rest of the Four Lands burn but the story, naturally enough, centres around the efforts of these trusty heroes, plus a thief with a heart of gold Eretria (Ivana Banquero) who must stop The Dagda Mor and his cast of nightmarish beings from destroying New Zealand, I mean, the future Earth … OR ELSE.
To be honest, while on paper it’s all been there, done that, got the Comic-Con commemorative Orc Funko Pop, and veers a little too much into teen melodrama territory with all the angst that implies, The Shannara Chronicles still manages to be reasonably engaging and fun to watch.
A lot of that comes down to the cast who take an outlandish idea and make it all sound very reasonable, the writers who balance nicely between gravitas and some of the self-knowing humour that many modern superhero/urban fantasy shows use so effectively to lighten the mood without slipping into parody, and the determined world-building which accepts that the world is as it is and doesn’t overly explain why it is (despite an insistent need for answers discussed earlier).
You may not be dazzled or wowed by its originality – as noted, the ticking of the fantasy boxes is resolute, determined and completist to a fault – but you will find yourself swept up in the show which moves along at a brisk pace without ever feeling like too much detail is being sacrificed on the way.
Quite whether it developed beyond this adherence to fantasy templates of old will be interesting to see.
It’s one thing to take well-worn tropes onboard and use them well; but if that’s all you do then there won’t be much reason for viewers to stick around.
But if the series can take those elements and gradually fashion them into an epic quite of their own making, then The Shannara Chronicles may well stand a chance of being watchable not simply because of its appeal to fantasy lovers but because it is a fine, unique piece of televisual storytelling of its own.