This is a pretty big year for mid-season sci-fi/fantasy shows. We already had the debut of The Expanse, but there are a bunch more new genre shows that run the gamut from glossy comic-book super-heroes, to Anglo-Saxon legends. Many of them are adaptations of successful books. While I can’t say that any of them stand out to me already as huge hits, many of them deserve a chance to make their mark.
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow
This spin-off from hit super-hero shows The Flash, and Arrow is one that I’ve been looking forward to ever since it was announced. While we’ve got Netflix to provide me with the down-to-earth Marvel Comics super-hero dramas like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the DC Comics shows seem to be getting brighter and more colourful with each spin-off. This show brings back a collection of guest-starring heroes and villains and puts them together on a super-team. Led by Rip Hunter, a rogue time-master played by Arthur Darvill of Doctor Who fame, their team travels in a time ship in an effort to defeat an immortal super-villain known as Vandal Savage. So far they’ve got that rag-tag requisite bickering and rocky-relationship banter down pretty well. Plus there’s the added joy of making fun of the past (in the second half of the pilot, Firestorm’s Professor Stein visits his younger self in the 70s when this uptight astro-physicist was a lot looser and groovier). I don’t anticipate too many heavy themes coming out of this show, but so far it’s a fun bit of escapism.
In contrast, this series is a redo of a movie, based on a successful book series, that I wasn’t so much anticipating (at least not until I found out that I knew someone with a guest role on the show). Clary Fray (now recast as someone whose hair seems way too red to be natural) is a teenage girl whose life turns upside-down when her mother is kidnapped. She is suddenly introduced to the hidden world-in-our-midst, full of demons, vampires, fairy, and shadowhunters (half-human, half-angel protectors of humanity). The shadowhunters she meets try to help her get her mother back as well as protect her from the baddies who want Clary because they believe she has a powerful artifact known as the Mortal Cup (I know, it sounds like a sports trophy!). While the movie wasn’t terrible, this show isn’t terrible either, but we aren’t really treading new ground that The Vampire Diaries hadn’t explored with a subtler touch. It’s definitely written for the teen set, but I’ll keep watching it until I see my friend’s episodes, or I get tired of listening to pretty kids speaking shallow dialogue.
The new season of the 90s hit sci-fi/horror series about two FBI agents investigating the paranormal made a welcome return to TV for a show that I didn’t know that I’d missed. The first episode is almost like a concentrated retread of past “mythology” arcs where Agent Fox Mulder is led to believe that there is a human conspiracy behind a lot of the paranormal and extra-terrestrial events that they’ve been investigating. I have to say that as great as it was to see all this stuff again (especially Agent Scully, who has aged well), it felt a bit too familiar and seemed like the same old song and dance. The second episode was better, dealing with the mysterious deaths of people connected to some kind of medical experiments. I had always liked the standalone episodes of The X-Files more than the mythology ones because they were easier to understand. Hopefully we will be able to enjoy some fresh adventures with the two agents before being sucked back into the complicated conspiracies, etc.
For a show about life under the oppressive rule of an alien invasion, this show was actually pretty interesting and enjoyable. There’s not a lot of information given about the background as the story starts post-invasion within a contemporary LA, controlled by a human force on behalf of the extra-terrestrial overlords. Josh Holloway from Lost plays a father who got separated from one of his sons during the invasion, who now goes to work as a rebel-hunter for the occupational government in exchange for getting his son back. Since we haven’t seen or heard much of the aliens aside from seeing their robotic flying drones, it’s mostly the kind of story that could be told in any occupied military zone (such as the Warsaw Ghetto of 1940). There are a lot of tense dramatic scenes when people break curfew or try to steal supplies and resources. Of course the big source of drama comes from the fact that Holloway’s character doesn’t realize that his wife is one of the rebels that he’s hunting. As much as I don’t love feeling constantly tense while watching TV, this series does a pretty good job of keeping it from being too oppressive. Let’s hope it turns out better than the recent revival of the series V.
The Shannara Chronicles
Another fantasy book adaptation aimed at the teen set, this series is produced for MTV and brings to screen the Terry Brooks Shannara series of novels. While these books have a huge fan base, I have never read them so I (thankfully) have not expectations to disappoint. Again we have some pretty, young characters, including a half-elf who has a magical lineage and destiny, an elf princess who has a mission to save all people by saving a magical tree, and a human thief who gets tangled up in their mission. This world is supposed to be our world but millennia in the future after our civilizations have long vanished. Now the elves rule, and at the heart of their civilization is a magical tree called the Ellcrys, which is dying because a demon army is returning to life. This show reminds me of a cancelled fantasy series called Legend of the Seeker, which was also an adaptation of a book series. Unlike Game of Thrones, which paved the way for TV adaptations of fantasy books, neither Seeker nor Shannara are heavy on the humanity and the depth of character. They are more interested in the adventure and melodrama (Shannara is clearly setting up a teen-baiting love triangle). The sets and scenery look pretty good, but it’s taking me some time to care anything about the fate of its main characters — perhaps because they seem so young and naive. I’m hoping that the larger story will soon take over so that I can place my interest there instead.
This is another comic book adaptation, but (though I have not read the comic) I don’t think the show stays very close to its source material. Essentially the premise is that Lucifer, the Devil, is tired of ruling Hell and decides to hang out on Earth with the Vegas party people up here. In the first episode, when a Hollywood starlet that he helped gets gunned down next to him, he puts his devilish powers to work with the police to solve her murder. He partners up with a loner detective who is still a bit suspicious of who this guy claims to be, but he has a way of charming his way in, so they have a tentative alliance. So far it seems that this show all hinges on how much viewers will enjoy the charms of Tom Ellis, the actor who plays Lucifer. The story so far was nothing special, so Ellis really did carry things on charisma alone, and it wasn’t bad. I don’t know whether I’d keep tuning in week after week if nothing more developed, but I guess we’ll see. Another element is the recurring appearance of DB Woodside as Lucifer’s angelic brother. His character is downright humourless (all the better to contrast Lucifer’s whimsy) and is repeatedly demanding that Lucifer restore balance by returning to Hell. I don’t know if this will grow into a bigger story arc, but right now it seems to just act as a little reminder to viewers that we are talking about angelic beings here. Whatever.
Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands
This series could be considered an adaptation as well, based on the Anglo-Saxon epic poem of “Beowulf”, however, I think this one is also sticking pretty loosely to the source. Lead character Beowulf is an orphaned warrior, living in a land of warlords and monsters. I was surprised by the magnificent scenery in the pilot episode as well as the impressive buildings and costumes. Add to that some decent CGI monsters and you’ve almost got a good epic adventure show. The story line has become a bit more modern as the orphan Beowulf has some issues with his foster father Hrothgar and his foster brother Slean. Since anyone remotely familiar with the story of Beowulf would be expecting his nemesis, the monster Grendel, to appear, I think they’ve brought the creature into the story as a mysterious monster who kills one of Hrothgar’s men (and Beowulf gets the blame from Slean when he discovers the body). The show looks pretty good, but it could definitely use a better script. Also, the problem with these kinds of epics is that they are short on detail and context, so the writers have had to make up a lot of side-characters and filler stories. Those will have to work really hard to be as interesting as the central, classic tale.
Finally, this is one more book adaptation, created from the hit novel of the same name by author Lev Grossman (who is also involved in the TV adaptation). I’ve read the book (and did not love it), but the show seems to do a lot better job of bringing these characters and situations to life. The other thing that I like about the show is that the ennui of the main characters is not so excruciating as it is to read. Anyway, the story is often described as “Harry Potter goes to college” or in this case, grad school. It focuses on a group of students at the mysterious Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Though similarly set up around characters going to magic school, this story is a lot less fun and deals a lot more with the character interactions and how their exploration of magic affects their personalities. I think the show is very well done. There’s a critical scene in the first episode where the students are paralyzed and attacked by a magical being in their classroom and while I remember well this scene from the book, seeing it was a much more engaging experience. Bottom line is that I love it when they do magic on screen and I’m looking forward to some of the other parts of the book that I think will be very interesting to watch as well.