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The Real World: Middle Earth (Thoughts on MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles)

Shannara 1

When I saw the first commercials for MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, which just finished up its first season last week, I dismissed it as a cheap Game of Thrones knock-off.  But I couldn’t have been more wrong:  it was actually more of a Lord of the Rings knock-off!  Still, the bizarre mash-up of epic fantasy and MTV made for a show that was consistently interesting, even when it wasn’t really very good.

First, a disclaimer:  I have, and will always have, a soft spot in my heart for Terry Brooks’ Shannara books.  Many people dismiss them as carbon-copies of Tolkien, and yeah, it’s pretty hard to argue with that—especially the first book, The Sword of Shannara, which is pretty much a beat-for-beat recreation of The Lord of the Rings.  However, these books were my gateway drug to reading fantasy—Brooks’ Magic Kingdom for Sale—Sold! was the first adult book I ever read—and I will always be thankful for that.  Besides, Brooks has grown a lot as a writer, and his novels are reliably fun and exciting adventures.

So it was probably a good decision for MTV to skip over Sword and adapt Brooks’ second book, The Elfstones of Shannara.  A lot of the basic elements are still familiar—the farm boy with a destiny, the mysterious mentor, the rebellious princess, the powerful magical artifact, the army of ugly monsters—but there’s enough difference that it doesn’t feel like The Lord of the Rings 2.0.  Besides, much of the fantasy genre has been playing in Tolkien’s sandbox for a long time now, and other books and movies have remixed these same elements effectively.

If 300 has taught us anything, it is that facial piercings=pure evil.

If 300 has taught us anything, it is that facial piercings=pure evil.

In fairness, The Shannara Chronicles has a lot going for it.  The series was filmed in New Zealand, and it looks beautiful.  It’s full of those sweeping landscape shots we loved in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, and in its better moments, it captures some of the feel of those films (and even in its worse, it at least feels like Hercules or Xena).  Adding to this impression is John Rhys-Davies, who plays the elven king—and let me tell you, it is weird seeing Gimli wearing elf ears.  For a basic cable production the costumes and sets are surprisingly impressive, although some of the makeup effects are a bit dodgy:  the gnomes look like they are wearing half-melted Halloween masks.  One thing that makes the Shannara books unique is the twist that this fantasy world is (dun dun dun!) actually our world, centuries after a nuclear holocaust, and the show has fun with this idea in some of its better moments—and also some of its worst.

For example, take my pick for the series’ worst episode, “Utopia.”  In this episode, our intrepid adventurers find themselves in a mysterious village where the inhabitants seem to be cosplaying as Mennonites (everyone else in The Shannara Chronicles is cosplaying as characters from Lord of the Rings).  These villagers have apparently found a source of electricity (?!), which they use to power an ancient movie projector (??!!) and music player (???!!!),  so they can hold an impromptu hoedown/rave (????!!!!).  It comes completely out of left field, and is never mentioned again.

Just what television needs:  more pretty white people.

Just what television needs: more pretty white people.

This is typical of the weird tension between MTV teen drama and epic fantasy that runs throughout the series.  It’s trying for this epic, serious tone in the vein of Lord of the Rings, but almost every character talks like they just stepped off of a teen soap opera.  The worst offender is protagonist Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler).  The character is almost painfully bland and generic, and the writers seem to have overcompensated by trying desperately to make him relatable to modern teens.  He dresses in what I can only describe as a medieval version of a hoodie, complete with skullcap and fingerless gloves—he looks like he is on his way to Ye Olde Skate Park.  He attempts witty banter with his mentor, the druid Allanon (whom I can only describe as “Jacked Gandalf”), but most of this falls completely flat.  He is part of an unnecessary love triangle that never develops or really goes anywhere, I think because MTV dramas are legally required to have at least one forced love triangle.

This is all very silly—but it is also kind of what makes the show entertaining.  It would just be another cookie-cutter fantasy, but its constant war with itself—MTV vs. epic fantasy—lends it an absurd and unpredictable quality that I haven’t really seen before.  It’s often not good, but it is frequently so-bad-it’s good.  It’s definitely a guilty pleasure, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t hope it got picked up for a second season.


Review: Star Wars: Shattered Empire #1

Shattered Empire

When I heard about a new comics miniseries connecting the Star Wars Original Trilogy to The Force Awakens, I got excited.  Seeing all my favorite characters again in a new story?  Building up to the new Star Wars film, and maybe dropping a few secrets and clues in the process?  Sign me up!  I rushed to the comics shop to pick up Shattered Empire the day it hit the stands.  Alas, it did not live up to my expectations.

Shattered Empire #1 begins not after Return of the Jedi, but right at the climax of the story.  After an introduction in the classic trapezoidal scrawl, we are dropped right into the battle around the second Death Star, and we immediately see the comic’s greatest strength (the art) and its greatest weakness (the story).  Marco Checcheto’s dynamic art captures the breathless excitement of the space battles, and his character work is recognizable but stylized.  The comic is almost worth picking up for the art alone.  However, the script lets him down.  The comic’s first line is “Green Six, two coming in three-mark-seven!”  This dialogue is true to the space battles in the films, but it’s also a terrible way to introduce us to the story and characters.  When Luke attacks the Death Star at the climax of A New Hope, we have some sense of who he and his team are and what motivates them.  Here, we’re introduced to new characters with a confusing  jumble of names and callsigns.

Emphasis on new characters.  After the battle, the story focuses in on two of the pilots for the Rebel Alliance, Shara Bey and her husband Kes Dameron.  I’d been hoping for a story about Luke and Leia, Han and Chewie, and their adventures after the Battle of Endor–and the comic’s cover, which shows these characters reunited and smiling, certainly capitalizes on that nostalgia.  But although they all make cameo appearances in the comic, this is clearly not their story.  This wouldn’t be such an issue if Shara and Kes were interesting characters in their own right, but they are not.  Shara receives little development outside of “good pilot, loves her husband;” and Kes, who bizarrely tells his wife “I was thinking we need to find a nice planet and build a house” before rushing into battle, couldn’t have a target printed on him more clearly if he was one day away from retirement.

Note:  NOT from Shattered Empire.  Although every story could benefit from space-velociraptors.

Note: NOT from Shattered Empire. Although every story could benefit from space-velociraptors.

More than anything, Shattered Empire reminds me of The Truce at Bakura–that bizarre Expanded Universe story where the heroes of Star Wars rushed off to fight space-velociraptors before Darth Vader’s ashes had a chance to cool (it, um, wasn’t the best of the Expanded Universe).  Alas, Shattered Empire has no Jedi-on-dinosaur action, but what the stories have in common is a need to tell the next story instead of a good story.  They’re filling in gaps that aren’t really all that important or all that interesting–something the Star Wars franchise has certainly been guilty of before.  After Shara and Kes help destroy the Death Star and return to Endor, they rush to the far side of the moon to finish off another Imperial base.  They already saved the galaxy:  now they’re just cleaning up leftovers.  With weak characters and a weak story, it’s difficult to recommend Shattered Empire, even with the terrific art.  I’m just hoping that The Force Awakens offers higher stakes and more compelling characters when it arrives this December.

In fairness, Shattered Empire #1 has a lot working against it.  As a first issue, it has to introduce us to the characters and story, and make us want to read more.  As a licensed Star Wars product, you know it must have faced severe restrictions on what it could reveal and what it could depict.  A lot of talented people worked on it, and honestly, we’re probably lucky it ended up as good as it did.  I just wish it has something to add to the Star Wars mythos, instead of riding its coattails.  The force is not strong with Shattered Empire, and this particular Star Wars fan will be waiting for The Force Awakens to see what happens next.

Rating:  2 out of 5 stars.

Review: Plutona #1

Plutona #1 won me over when the fat kid told the bully to fuck off.

At first glance, this new comic by Jeff Lemire and Emi Lennox looked like an all-ages, super-powered take on Stand By Me, where a diverse group of kids stumble across the body of a famous superhero (the titular Plutona).  The art by Emi Lennox is cartoony and welcoming, with plenty of soft pastels and autumnal colors.  The main characters are all in middle school, and at first they seem like a collection of teenage archetypes straight out of The Breakfast Club:  the nerd (Teddy), the bully (Ray), the fat kid (Diane), the weirdo (Mie), the annoying kid brother (Mike).  A few pages in, I thought I had a good idea what to expect.

But that started to change the moment Diane told Ray to fuck off.  Suddenly, I wasn’t reading a book for kids–I was reading a book about kids.  They were talking like real teenagers, not what adult writers think teenagers talk like.  Each of the kids has his or her own unique voice, and while they may start out as stereotypes, they are already beginning to seem more real and developed:  Diane is trying to find an identity for herself.  Mie is kind of a shitty friend.  Beneath the bright and accessible art there is an underlying darkness, visible in the flies crawling over Plutona’s body and the beer cans stacked by Ray’s unconscious father.  Plutona isn’t quite what I expected, and I am looking forward to seeing more.

Plutona Page 4

Also worth noting is Lemire’s work with panel layouts, so innovative and brilliant in Trillium.  Although it is never distracting, Lemire’s play with the comics form helps develop the characters and story.  For example, Lemire and Lennox introduce each of the four main characters in four consecutive pages with nearly identical layouts (the first, our introduction to Teddy, is above).  Seeing their different lives presented in such a similar way highlights the differences and similarities between them, and effectively dumps readers into the middle of their often complicated lives.

Rating;  4 out of 5 stars