Shannara, Star Wars, and the Burden of Fantasy

MTV’s new show offers a reminder that stories about other worlds need to feel at least somewhat new.


Watching the first three episodes of MTV’s new series The Shannara Chronicles, I kept thinking about Star Wars. When the naive country boy Wil learned of the heroism and sad fate of a father he barely knew, I thought of Luke Skywalker’s original impression of Anakin. When the young princess Amberle (also orphaned, also chosen for greatness by destiny) faced a supernatural trial where she loses “if she succumbs to her fear,” I thought of Luke’s trial in the cave on Dagobah. At one point, even, I swore I heard Darth Vader’s breathing in the score.

I also thought a lot about Tolkien, Warcraft, Dungeons and Dragons, and the Terry Brooks novels upon which the show is based and that I fuzzily remember reading in early adolescence. Elves, druids, magic, demons—as the AV Club’s review smartly puts it, the show could easily be a drinking game about fantasy tropes.

It’s worth recognizing the two categories of tropes mentioned above. There are the storyline intangibles, the characters’ quests and destinies and dead parents—narrative shapes that, a lot of people argue, appeal universally. And then there are the nouns—gnomes! changelings!—used to build the world in which those narratives unfolds. The fact that the mostly inert The Shannara Chronicles is utterly familiar on both levels is a reminder that a truly vibrant fantasy story requires some sort of invention.

It should be noted that it’s possible the show could become an MTV hit. Though it’s based on a novel released in 1982, Shannara is aimed at teens who may be better versed in the universes of The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner (both of which the show’s opening scene heavily recalls) than Lord of the Rings. Maybe for those viewers, the pointy-eared elves and spell books and hints of a long-ago apocalypse detailed in the show’s brisk and lucid scenes will scan as intrinsically interesting. Or maybe it’ll just be enough to take in the blank acting of the handsome, doe-eyed leads who get into an improbable number of situations that require them to interact while naked.

For most others—even adults with some affinity for the Shannara books or fantasy in general—the show should be pretty boring. When Amberle faces a mystical test of her mettle, or when Wil decides he wants no part of the grand conflict he’s been swept into, the only tension for viewers comes from wondering how quickly these obligatory plot waymarkers will be passed by (thankfully, in both cases, it’s very quickly). In order to get truly lost in this world, you’d have to shut off your memory.

But its rote-ness does help shed a light on the virtues of some of the works Shannara will be compared to. After watching this show, Game of Thrones seems all the more remarkable, not because it avoids its genre’s cliches—it doesn’t, entirely—but because it obscures them, or stretches them out, or in some cases totally upends them. Five seasons into that show, you still can’t confidently say that there is a “chosen one” character. Does destiny play a role at all? The answer could well turn out to be no, and if it’s a yes, it’s not a yes that was revealed in the first hour of the show. This uncertainty, the feeling that anything could happen, helps make a world otherwise made up of borrowed elements feel novel, absorbing.

Conversely, Star Wars shows how an unfamiliar world can make a predictable plot feel wondrous. The first three films indulged in mythic-formula storytelling but placed it in a magical junkyard future that seemed surprising, different, bizarre. Now, The Force Awakens has ignited a debate about whether it’s okay for Star Wars to forgo further world-building. If it is okay, it’s only because of how sturdy and inimitable George Lucas’s original universe was. For a lot of people, the trappings of the 1977 Star Wars remains fresh enough to thrill; though the franchise has reshaped pop culture, lightsabers and TIE Fighters haven’t quite been as pervasively knocked off as Tolkien’s elvish cities and enchanted swords have been. As for the storytelling: The Force Awakens apes A New Hope apes Joseph Campbell, but the the archetypal heroes themselves represent a small innovation. Finn, Rey, and even Kylo Ren have unique and memorable personalities that the cardboard-like Shannara kids so far lack (the show even winks at the possibility that the two strong female leads might get mixed up).

I remember loving the Shannara books when I was younger, but all I really now remember about them is the fact that the story’s so-called “elf stones” (glowing pebbles with special powers) were awesome because you could imagine digging them up in your own backyard. In the show, though, they seem like cheap, plastic props. Maybe that can be chalked up to my changed perspective, or maybe it’s just a result of bland filmmaking. What’s clear is that The Shannara Chronicles has yet to remake the familiar into that thing all great fantasies require: something fantastic.