They say it would be a waste of time to reinvent the wheel but that’s not entirely true. If you’re talking about Amazon Prime’s middling new “Wheel of Time” series, for example, certainly a little extra tinkering couldn’t have hurt. Based on a lengthy book series by Robert Jordan (eventually completed, in accordance with the late creator’s notes, by Brandon Sanderson), “The Wheel of Time” is an epic fantasy adventure about swords, sorcery and reincarnation that has drawn an avid following. A newcomer could reasonably assume that, after well over a dozen novels, there is something special about this series that warrants big-budget television treatment.
Or rather, a newcomer would very much have to assume that, since there’s very little evidence in the show’s first six episodes. “The Wheel of Time” stars Rosamund Pike (“I Care a Lot”) as Moiraine Damodred, a powerful sorcerer and a member of the all-female Aes Sedai, who keep the world safe from magical dangers like — as we see in the show’s opening minutes — men. Many generations ago, a man called the Dragon wielded so much magical power that he broke the world, and now a curse has been cast that drives any man who uses magic hopelessly mad. (You would think that this would only make men who use magic more dangerous, but you don’t make the rules, so you don’t get a say in that.)
The Dragon has been prophesied to return and either save or destroy the world, so it’s up to Moiraine to find the new Dragon and do whatever must be done. The problem is Moiraine has no idea who this new Dragon is. The best she can do is narrow it down to a group of 20-year-olds in a small town, and three of them are men, so that’s probably not good.
The first six episodes of “The Wheel of Time” find Moiraine and her new charges escaping not-very-convincing monsters, trudging through nondescript woodland backdrops and splitting up to meet more side characters and have little mini-adventures of their own. It’s not unlike watching “The Lord of the Rings” in fast forward, so you’re skipping all the human interest and just getting the general gist of a globetrotting adventure.
How is it that a TV series with all the time in the time in the world managed to bypass most of the character development? It’s genuinely baffling how perfunctory the storytelling feels in “The Wheel of Time.” There are answers to almost every question that doesn’t meaningfully affect our protagonists — color-coded outfits, enchanted weapons, long-lost sheet music — but all the young stars are given rudimentary backstories and then shoved along their way.
Egwene (Madeleine Madden, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold”) is learning the ways of magic and was totally ready to dump her boyfriend, Rand (Josha Stradowski, “High Flyers”), whose sole defining trait is that he looks like Anakin Skywalker from the “Star Wars” prequels. Mat (Barney Harris, “A Brixton Tale”) is a bit of a cad and maybe that means he’s bad or something. The only main character with some serious inner turmoil is Perrin (Marcus Rutherford, “Bulletproof”), a blacksmith who was happily married until monsters attacked his sleepy town, and now he harbors a terrible secret. But all he’s really going to do is brood about his plight.
The pilot episode of “The Wheel of Time” establishes these young protagonists, and a few more who will be important later on, in their rather boring day-to-day lives. When they embark on their journey, within a few episodes they’re drifting off in other directions. We don’t spend nearly enough time with them as a group to care that they’re split up, and when they’re split up they still refuse to take one another in their confidences, so no connections can be forged. They’re just floating in the wind and if they bump into each other, or an important plot point, it feels completely random.
It’s tempting to compare “The Wheel of Time” to “Game of Thrones” — and the show practically begs you to do so. The title sequence alone, which draws images of the major elements of the story using antiquated arts and crafts, is guaranteed to place HBO’s once-impressive, now-sullied fantasy series front and center in your head. But Amazon’s foray into high fantasy can’t match “Thrones” in production values — it suffers from subpar VFX, costumes that look like nobody’s ever worn them before and sets that look like nobody has ever inhabited them. Worse, the show lacks the patience necessary to convince us that its mythology is reality to the characters.
“The Wheel of Time” is so busy explaining itself that it never justifies all its explanations, and that’s a pity, because there’s something here. That’s particularly true of standout Rosamund Pike, whose version of the all-knowing wizard helping new heroes on their quest is free from the typical bluster common to portrayals of Merlin/Gandalf/Dumbledore archetypes. Her elegant weariness is a welcome change of pace in the otherwise all-too-typical fantasy rigmarole. She even tries to make all her CGI-manipulating mime work look badass, and she gets away with it as well or better than almost anyone else could.
While the matriarchal world order sounds exciting on paper, and maybe on paper it was, the series fails to incorporate that idea organically into the many, many plot points. So far, “The Wheel of Time” has missed an opportunity to expand on its sanitized, undercharacterized, generic world-building and build something meaningful and distinct.
For now, this show is only spinning its wheels. For a really, really long time.