Next September, Amazon will release its heavily anticipated “Lord of the Rings” reboot series, which is reportedly the biggest production yet not just for Amazon but the entire medium of television. But while fantasy fans are waiting to get back to Middle Earth, they’ll have to chew on “The Wheel of Time” instead, as adapted from the popular books by Robert Jordan. This series, with its scope and special effects feels a bit like a dry run, and it shares a director in Wayne Yip as well. But the key word is dry, as “The Wheel of Time” tries to do many things in each hour-long episode, and whipping up a must-binge story for the Prestige TV era is not one of them.
“The Wheel of Time,” at least in its first five episodes, is the case of a show that’s so busy, and so packed with characters worried about the past and present, and yet it fails to gain momentum or edge. Its medieval world is on the brink of apocalypse, and Rosamund Pike can conjure wild streams of magic with the tense cupping of her hands. But it's hard to get lost in this world when it feels so emotionally distant, so scattered, and so packed with thin plotlines.
Pike executive produced the series, and stars as a noblewoman named Moiraine, who, like select other women in the world of “The Wheel of Time,” has the ability to move things and shake them up (men once had the ability, as the pilot’s rapid-fire exposition lets us know, before they screwed everything up). Along with her trusty assistant Lan Mondragon (Daniel Henney), Moiraine is on the search for someone who is the reincarnation of an ancient power called the Dragon, in this case someone around 20 years old who will have the ability to either restore or destroy the world. The big catch is, however, that no one knows for sure who it is, even though Moiraine is confident that it’s one of five young, attractive, and relatively dull villagers in the town of Two Rivers. One of the show's biggest problems is that it gives you five mini-heroes (along with Pike's superpowers and Lan's vigilance), but neither the characters nor the respective performances inspire much curiosity. Being a hero seems like ho-hum activity in something as stretched out as "The Wheel of Time."
Moiraine finds her roster of possible world-savers one night at the village watering hole, fraternizing as if it were just any old night. There’s Rand, (Josha Stradowski), Nynaeve (Zoë Robins), Egwene (Madeleine Madden), Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) and Mat (Barney Harris). But finding a possible Dragon Reborn in this group is just the beginning, as they have to venture to a place called the White Tower and reunite with Moiraine’s group of other powerful women, known the Aes Sedai. Meanwhile, they are being chased by a force called the Darkness, along with orc-like monsters called Trollocs (created with an impressive mix of practical costumes and special effects), who terrorize Two Rivers in the first pilot episode, and slaughter many of its villagers.
And then the show's focus splinters even more by the end of episode two, in a way that won’t be spoiled. It doesn’t add momentum to the story, but just gives you more mental juggling to do as a viewer, while being dragged through numerous scenes of characters detailing ominous backstory via the show's commonly on-the-nose dialogue. Perhaps aware of how much the show can be so chatty, “The Wheel of Time” has some bombastic scenes of combat that are fitfully claustrophobic and chaotic, and it can be jarringly brutal as if trying to prove something.
The secret business of the Dragon Reborn—about who holds the power—sets more of a stage for the story’s larger, compelling motif about how people can surprise you, or that the secrets they hold can be in great contrast to how they appear. As the young villagers move about the world, they find people who are surprisingly good, while others hold daggers behind their backs. For a story that’s so heavily based on building a world through backstory, while moving it forward in surprising ways, the side characters themselves can be unpredictable, and the plotting gets the most energy from this angle.
Even with the many lives at stake, “The Wheel of Time” struggles to make an intricate emotional connection. Instead it has the feeling of various hero arcs getting tangled with each other, and when everything feels grandiose, nothing is. Fans of Jordan's series will likely take to seeing their beloved franchise given such a massive treatment, like how Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" books were recently adapted by AppleTV+. But it's almost like you must have a reverence for these characters to care what happens here, or feel that Moiraine's super powers are more than just another cliché from fantasy storytelling. The show tries to include so many elements that seem special, when instead they become evidence of the show’s overall monotonous imagination.
Five episodes screened for review. The first three episodes of "The Wheel of Time" premiere on Amazon on November 19th with a new episode each week.