Article updated on November 19, 2021 at 2:00 AM PST

The Wheel of Time review: Flat-pack fantasy fills time before Lord of the Rings returns

Streaming now on Prime Video, Amazon turns Robert Jordan's bestselling sword 'n' sorcery series into an inoffensive TV adaptation.

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Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Gather round the fire, travelers, for I must weave a tale of another age: an age of rings and thrones, shadows and bones, witches and witchers. They called it: the age of streaming. And into this age of warring streaming services rode The Wheel of Time. But will it fulfill the prophecy and defeat the hordes of fantasy shows to become a smash hit?

Streaming now on Amazon Prime Video, The Wheel of Time is based on Robert Jordan's long-running series of novels. The first three episodes stream on Friday, followed by a new episode each week. It's set in a fantasy realm rebuilt after a cataclysm, except the darkness threatens again as a champion called the Dragon returns to the world. The show follows a warrior witch and her samurai sidekick as they recruit a handful of youngsters who each may be the reincarnated Dragon, heading off on a quest across a treacherous land of sword and sorcery.

Having sold over 90 million copies, the Wheel of Time saga must have a unique hook. But from watching the first few episodes of the TV show, I'm Bilbo'd if I can tell you what it is. From the obligatory ominous opening voiceover to the beastly trolls hounding our heroes, the TV adaptation is built from entirely familiar flat-pack fantasy stuff. Everyone wears tunics (or capes if they're fancy/morally ambiguous) and argue about prophecies in hushed tones as they ride through a forest in Hungary or somewhere. They go on a quest and have a big swordfight each episode. Haughty priestesses declaim their magic. Nobody ever smiles.

It's kinda impossible to tell if the whole thing is really expensive or really cheap. Every now and again there's some sudden squelchy nastiness, but nothing too nasty. There's some CGI magic and monsters, but the scariest thing is, you guessed it, people.

Obviously if you're a fan of the books you may be delighted to see your favorite characters brought to life, but long-time fans of Jordan's richly detailed realm surely deserve better than seeing their beloved stories flattened into such formulaic fantasy filler.

The mystery element of the show is intriguing as you ponder which of the main cast might be the reincarnated Dragon, which is at least a diverting twist on the "chosen one" prophecy narrative. And things get spiced up a few episodes in when another contender to the mantle shows up. But the characters themselves just aren't that interesting. Three or four episodes in, I still couldn't tell you the names of the main players. And after decades of debating their dream casting, fans end up with a main cast of blandly handsome drama school types doing their best, while Rosamund Pike wafts around in a cape like a Scottish Widows advert.

Rosamund Pike wheel out the fantasy formula in The Wheel of Time.

Ooh that's magic.

Amazon Studios

The world itself does have some interesting gender politics going on, as the warrior witches of the Aes Sedai are the most powerful faction in the land and specifically target men who dabble in magic. This is just one of several elements in the show that are crying out for more compelling development, or are done with more oomph elsewhere (Motherland: Fort Salem and Y: The Last Man both tackle gender-upended worlds, for example).

The Wheel of Time deserves to be measured on its own merits, and it is inoffensive enough entertainment. But it just invites comparison at every turn. The monsters look cool, for example, yet you can't help thinking of Lord of the Rings' snarling orcs and hooded ringwraiths.

It's been 20 years since the Lord of the Rings movies showed how modern visual effects and character-driven storytelling could make fantasy thrillingly emotional. It's been 10 years since Game of Thrones made fantasy TV unmissable. As every streaming service scrambled to make the next GoT, The Wheel of Time must have seemed ripe for adaptation. But some things work better on the page, and this bloodless version fails to capture whatever magic the books have.

Game of Thrones had sex and dragons, The Witcher has Henry Cavill, Shadow and Bone has sexy con artists. The Dark Crystal has amazing puppets, and Carnival Row has a whole steamy steampunk thing going on. The fantasy genre more than ever has scope to be wildly imaginative and deliciously unique, but that's not the case with The Wheel of Time. Still, next year we come full circle with Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon and Amazon's wildly expensive Lord of the Rings adaptation in September. While you're waiting, spin your wheels with Wheel of Time.

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