If you’re a part of the Wheel of Time fandom, you’ve almost definitely heard about this by now. If you’re not, then there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve heard about it anyway. Therefore, I’ll keep my summary as short as I can.
The Wheel of Time, whether you like it or not (I love it), is one of the most successful epic fantasy series every published, having a huge audience, and has even spawned its own reread of a reread on tor.com and Jordancon, a convention dedicated largely to Wheel of Time related things. It is, perhaps, one of the most famous fantasy book series that hasn’t been adapted to TV or a movie, now that Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire have gone that way. It’s considerably more popular (and, in my opinion, an order of magnitude better) than the Shannara series that’s currently being adapted, so it’s past time someone did something with it.
The problem is rights. The rights for TV/movie productions have rested with a handful of companies over the years, and tracing back through the entire history is a bit tortuous, but for the past several—including much of the Hobbit and GoT fervor years—they have rested with Red Eagle Entertainment, a company that seems to have almost exclusively been made to hold such rights and attempt to make money selling them to others. Their rights were set to expire Wednesday, February 11, 2015, this week, and the only real chance of extension they had was to produce a pilot for the show before that time.
They seem to have realized this in mid January, and Winter Dragon was born. REE apparently hired a director who did the filming of the entire 15-20 minute episode in a single day, had a week or two to do all of the editing and production, and turned in the episode at the end of January. The episode aired at 1:30 AM on an out of the way channel, and was obviously meant to fly under the radar. Unfortunately for them, one (and possibly only one) Wheel of Time fan found the summary for the show on a listing somewhere the evening before, and notified Dragonmount, one of the largest Wheel of Time fan sites, of what had happened. And it spread from there. If you were a Wheel of Time fan and you were online that evening, you heard about it. Even Brandon Sanderson heard and tweeted about it, though that was largely to say he had not been involved or informed at all. I stayed up even though it left me with 3.5 hours of sleep the next day, just to see how horrible the “pilot” was.
A note here before I talk about the episode itself: The quality is, as far as I can tell, the fault of REE, the very compressed production schedule they followed, and the minimal budget they had. The actors were obviously not coached on their pronunciations or acting, though that’s hardly their fault with a single day of filming. And the producer, Seda, did his very best on the project, which appears to have been his first real assignment—and he was incredibly excited about it. I applaud his work, especially given the environment he had to work with, and I am sad to say that he passed away in a car accident only a few days before the pilot aired.
The episode itself was drawn directly from the original prologue to The Eye of the World, the first book in the Wheel of Time main series. The greatest strength of the episode is how closely it sticks to this prologue—including lifting nearly all of the dialogue. The script for the episode was obviously put together in just as short of a time-period as the rest of the show, and in some ways this is a good thing. It’s very recognizably Wheel of Time. At the same time, it demonstrates why the best movies and TV shows are “adaptations”. Lifting directly from the book, as here, makes for some weird, slow, and awkward scenes that would have been much better edited into something more screen-friendly. Of course, then you run into the danger of the Eragon movie (which does not exist) and end up with a story that has some characters who share names with the book. It’s a delicate balance and this show erred on the side of safety for this choice. Given their time constraints, this was probably the best move.
The acting is almost hilariously bad in places—and it’s obvious that the actors didn’t really now what they were doing, or why, beyond that it was a job. I’m willing to bet that they haven’t read the Wheel of Time series, and they especially haven’t listened to the audiobooks. The pronunciations are horrible, and some of them, like Shai’tan, change two or three times during the single episode, filmed during a single day. There’s a moment where Ishmael points at the sky, then at the Dragon, saying something about the Great Lord, that stands out particularly as miserable acting, but it’s one of many. I really wish that the actors had been given more coaching and knew what they were doing—and that they had been given a better adaptation instead of awkward lines from the book.
The special effects are horribly laughable. What I can only guess is a scene where Lews Therin is supposed to be channelling the One Power is simply ridiculous, and is portrayed as him standing there, blatantly fake lightning occasionally shooting out from his body… Yeah. It’s cringe-inducing. In addition, the special effects budget was obviously too small for them to be able to construct a destroyed mansion, and instead of the earth-rumbling horror that the book portrays, we get a couple of torn banners and some dirt on top of what it still pristine stone-work and sturdy walls. The dead are done convincingly enough, but that’s a minor saving grace. And they were not saving their special effects budget for a spectacular ending, either. The massive, powerful, utterly impressive creation of Dragonmount at the end of the prologue was instead reduced to the Dragon slow-mo walking up a set of stairs with a ridiculous looking sword, presumably to commit suicide, while Ishmael impotently shouted “Dragon” after him repeatedly.
Oh, and speaking of shouting…
Illyena! Illyena! Illyena! Illyena! Illyena! Illyena! Illyena! Illyena! Illyena! Illyena! Illyena! Illyena!
(Also, why do they still refer to her as sunhair in the show if she obviously has nothing of the sort?)
All in all, though, the show could have been a lot worse. The producers could have decided that since it was a throw-away project, they could introduce and change whatever they wanted, as long as they still slapped the Wheel of Time logo on it. Instead, they stuck painfully close to the dialogue of the prologue—and, in my opinion, made a good translation from the book’s portrayal of madness to the screen—and so we got to hear some of our favorite lines rendered, and the story matched in large part—where the special effects “budget” allowed it. For a rushed production, I’m ambiguous on the quality.
But what really scares me is the possibility of an entire TV show produced this shoddily. I want something with a large budget, something that does justice to the epicness of the books and the incredible amount of work that went into them. Something the quality of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. If they do an entire show of this quality, I will flat out refuse to watch it. I saw the “pilot” episode more out of a morbid curiosity than anything—though I’ll admit it was also gratifying to see the Wheel of Time portrayed on a screen and to dream about the possibilities. I really hope the rights revert back to Harriet soon, and they can be sold to a good company that will produce a quality show.
But if that’s what you want, you should go check out this fan-made episode instead. It’s orders of magnitude better than the pilot that aired earlier this week.