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Neil-Review

THE WHEEL OF TIME (2021) Season 1 – Review

Neil reviews Amazon Prime Video’s latest fantasy epic, THE WHEEL OF TIME, saying the show “succeeds in opening up the world of Robert Jordan’s epic series.”

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The Wheel of Time (Amazon Prime Video)

The first three episodes of The Wheel of Time season one will premiere Friday 19th November with new episodes available each Friday following, leading up to the season finale on 24th December exclusively on Prime Video.

Synopsis

Set in a sprawling, epic world where magic exists and only certain women are allowed to access it, the story follows Moiraine (Pike), a member of the incredibly powerful all-female organization called the Aes Sedai, as she arrives in the small town of Two Rivers. There, she embarks on a dangerous, world-spanning journey with five young men and women, one of whom is prophesied to be the Dragon Reborn, who will either save or destroy humanity.

Review

In a post-Game of Thrones landscape fantasy fans have been crying out for something new and epic to fill the void. Whilst Netflix struck gold with The Witcher, Amazon Prime has been quietly developing not one, but two epic series which are slowly making their way to the small screen.

With their Lord of the Rings series still some ways off, it’s down to The Wheel of Time to fly the flag for epic sweeping landscapes filled with magic and wonder. At this stage I’ve had the benefit of seeing episodes on both the small screen and in IMAX. What is immediately striking is the thought behind bringing Robert Jordan’s 15 novel – including one prequel – series to the screen.

With a world as rich and layered as this it’s inevitable that there will be struggles in bringing it to the screen. There’s a lot of introductions and world-building to be done. Introducing the concept of The One Power, the Aes Sedai and, of course, the metaphoric, titular wheel. But the Prime Gods are on our side. Dropping the first three episodes together allows all of that heavy setup to be binged by the audience before launching in to the weekly rollout with the story in full swing.

Front and centre is Rosamund Pike as Moiraine, our de facto lead. Moiraine is curt, decisive and often lacks the self awareness to understand her actions. Her dedication to finding the Dragon Reborn is explicit and unwavering. Pike carries the emotional weight of the story effortlessly in early episodes. Whilst her delivery feels clipped it evokes the sense that the viewer has arrived in to a story already underway.

The role also calls for a physicality rarely seen in Pike’s performances. As she thrusts fireballs at oncoming Trollocs there is a sense of consciousness to her movements. Perhaps a sense of not fully trusting her ability. But she need not worry, Moiraine will no doubt transcend the page to become a screen icon.

The series’ supporting characters, though recognisable to their literary counterparts, have undergone a few changes. For the series to avoid any CW comparisons the young heroes have been aged up, with each now being around the age of 20. In the books it was Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski), Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris) and Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford) who had the potential to be the Dragon Reborn. In the series it’s suggested that Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden) may also be a candidate. Each of the four is given a solid introduction and background in episode one, laying excellent foundations for the journey to come.

Showrunner Rafe Judkins, a life-long fan of the books, has been able to instil a unique point of view in to each character. For point of reference, in the books there are 148 point of view characters and almost 2,800 named characters. Distilling that volume of information in to a cohesive story is no mean feat.

With a reported $10 million budget per-episode, The Wheel of Time cuts an impressive visual figure. Shot mostly in Prague, with locations in Slovenia and Dubrovnik, the landscapes are sprawling. The series exists in a mash-up of post-apocalyptic and medieval landscapes which allows for some great visual flare. Large open spaces are often littered with the remnants of old structures add in post production but always well integrated with their surroundings. Episode two introduces a huge walled location which stretches the series’ budget but still looks authentic and exciting.

Much to my delight the series implements a number of impressive practical effects. The beastly Trollocs are often practical suits in close up shots. Only enhance by VFX during larger crowd scenes. The first episode also features an impressive practical effect as Lan (Daniel Henney) protects Moiraine from a collapsing building. It’s examples like this which show the creative teams dedication to creating an authentic experience for fans.

It’s unavoidable that The Wheel of Time will touch on fantasy tropes. We have the heroic group (the Aes Sedai), the world-ending villain (The Dark One) and the mythical hero (the Dragon Reborn). Then there’s the epic, cross-country journey to save good from evil. We’ve seen it all before. But look beneath that and there’s a lot more to offer. First and foremost the gender politics of The Wheel of Time are extraordinary. In this world women are equal to, and in many cases more important, than men. There’s no consideration of gender, race or sexuality. Rather than forcing their inclusion they are simply not an issue.

Before I sign off I have to touch on Lorne Balfe’s epic score. There will undoubtedly be comparisons to Ramen Djawadi’s work on Game of Thrones. But Balfe’s approach to the musical landscape is standout in the production. The opening credits, introduced in episode 2, also feature an excellent theme. Volume one of the soundtrack is available now and I highly recommend you give it a listen in isolation to watching the show.

Verdict

The Wheel of Time succeeds in opening up the world of Robert Jordan’s epic series to an uninitiated audience. The slow burning story is undeniably gripping and the show wears its fantasy heart on its sleeve.


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