It’s the Christmas weekend, the countryside is silent and dreary under a blanket of cold mist, and there is very little to do but eat (in moderation), read (an old Warhammer Fantasy novel) and wait for New Year’s Eve.
In the general desert of the media landscape, I chanced upon the announcement of a new Netflix series, The Witcher: Blood Origin, and I thought… why not?
Now, I know very little about The Witcher franchise – I never played the video games, the stories always seemed to me to be extremely derivative of Michael Moorcock’s Elric, and I was not able to go past the first episode of the TV series – with all the sympathy for Henry Cavill, but no, sorry, I can’t stand the bard guy, and the series is clearly not for me.
So this new miniseries came as a complete surprise, and really, going blind into it?
Four episodes featuring Michelle Yeoh and Minnie Driver?
I will probably miss all the connections and deep lore, but at least I’ll be able to enjoy the series on its own merits.
Now, The Witcher: Blood Origin is just what it says on the tin – an origin story, telling us how the world in which the main series takes place came to be. It features political intrigue, world-shattering magic and seven warriors that plan to take their revenge on the bad guys that have usurped the throne.
So, yes, it’s basically The Seven Samurai crossed with Chushingura, with added elves and magic.
And here’s where the problems begin.
Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 The Seven Samurai is a master class in writing economy and storytelling.
At 207 minutes, it clocks almost exactly the same as The Witcher: Blood Origin if we take away opening and end titles.
It takes about one hour to Kurosawa to set up the premise of the story, and introduce the main characters – and he does so in a masterful way (hey, it’s Akira Kurosawa!), handing us each character, their psychology and their style, their function in the band of warriors.
Once this is done, in an interesting and exciting way, we plunge into the action, and for the remaining two hours the action won’t let up, while still taking time to develop the characters in surprising ways.
The Witcher miniseries takes almost three episodes – that’s two hours and a half – to set up the story and bring the seven characters together. Which leaves about fifty minutes for the expected big action payoff.
That so much time is spent in introducing and bringing together such bloodless, flat characters, is the main let down, for me.
The actors are good, but they are given very little to work with. A lot of the development seems rushed, and a fair chunk of dialogue is below par. There’s a lot of walking around – with or without horses, animals that seem to have the uncanny ability to appear and disappear at will.
The seven heroes are your standard band of seven, with a characterization that does not seem to go deeper than your standard D&D character sheet.
The politics of the series is interesting, but underdeveloped – and while Mirren Mack in the role of the delusional Princess Merwyn is interesting (and often visually striking), once again she does not have much to do. We get there are social class issues at work, undermining the elven civilization, but it’s pretty sketchy.
And that much of the weight of the story ends up being carried by Minnie Driver’s voice-over is a sign of how underwritten and rushed the whole thing is.
We are supposedly looking at the end of a world and the beginning of a new one, but nothing feels as thrilling as it is supposed to be.
We follow characters we do not care about as they set in motion events we do not care about, in a world we do not care about.
Then there are some very minor pet peeves of mine, writing-wise – such as the fact that we get people that say “send them to the clay” instead of “bury them”/”kill them” (which is a fine if heavy-handed bit of worldbuilding), but then will answer “okay!” to some questions, the anachronism grating like fingernails on a chalkboard.
But that’s only me – it’s a silly detail, like the horses coming and going, or characters popping in and out of the story.
So, what about the good stuff?
Well, as I said, the actors are good (Sophia Brown, Francesca Mills and the already-mentioned Mirren Mack in particular), and do their best with the poor writing.
The action scenes are few and far between, but they are not bad.
The locations are beautiful, and the costumes are fine (Princess Merwyn’s outfits and make-up are great, and more than compensate her Ikea-furnished apartments).
And talking about Ikea, I particularly liked the design of the elven civilization’s brutalist architecture. And the alien design of the monsters is excellent, if not over-the-top original.
And of course, I’d pay a first-class ticket to watch Michelle Yeoh breath, so I’m on board on this.
Sadly, the good bits sprinkled in the mix are not enough to grant this story the minimum of interest and excitement that would make spending almost four hours watching it.
But hey, it’s the Christmas weekend, and I had nothing better to do.
A missed opportunity.