Is this even possible? I mean, were there any fantasy TV shows before, like, the 90’s? Come with me then, dear traveller, and let us investigate this mystery. If you were kind enough to read my previous article, wittily called In Search of the Perfect Fantasy Movie, you will have an inkling as to what I am looking for – it needs big swordfights, a range of fantasy creatures, good dialogue, magic and bad men in helmets. I know, right? This should be easy!
I would argue that TV has had a much longer and more comfortable relationship with fantasy than cinema has, I don’t know why but TV was pushing out successful fantasy and sci-fi shows since the late 60s. Considering the budget constraints, this seems surprising, but they made up for it by concentrating on story and character rather than the visual aspect. I‘m not going to discuss sci-fi here for obvious reasons.
I’ll admit that there wasn’t much in terms of hardcore fantasy output before the 80’s and if there was it was often left in the realm of kids TV – not to belittle it, I was a small kid once (as opposed to the big one now) - and the occasional mad foreign import. Yes, Monkey! I loved that show, based on the ancient text Journey to the West, it used to be on at a mad time – like 6pm on BBC2 – and it was amazing. The dialogue, the voices, the huge fights when Monkey would summon his army by blowing on his chest hair and the amazing fx! It was bonkers but brilliant. I got some of the videos released in the 90s and watched them again – I could spot the wires now but it was still fun for all of that. If anything, I could appreciate the wit and mickey taking of the dubbing actors more. You know, I think this show is ripe for a western make-over and it should star Nathan Fillion. Not that I’m in any way biased.
The 1980’s were still a bit bereft of any good fantasy. It was the time of Fighting Fantasy and the rise of Games Workshop, so I wasn’t surprised to see Knightmare on ITV. It was the fantasy equivalent of the awesome Adventure Game. I always felt for the sprog whose job it was to walk around in the helmet, in what was in reality big empty room. Livin’ the dream, huh.
There was something on called Robin of Sherwood with a dreamy, folksy soundtrack by Clannad. Starring Michael Praed, then Jason Connery, it was actually pretty gritty and kinda cool with a good supporting cast (Ray Winstone for example). It tried to place itself in an actual historical context but had fantasy elements such as sorcery. It was cancelled after three seasons.
Come the 90s, things started to pick up due in no small part to Sam Raimi and his cohorts of terror. They kicked off with the long running Hercules starring Kevin Sorbo and then the spin off Xena, Warrior princess. Based on Greek legends, with the gods of Olympus pitching up to meddle in things, the show branched out to include other elements of ancient lore. They also had the good sense to base themselves in the heart of fantasydom on Earth – New Zealand. Both shows had decent runs and were good fun. They also had the secret weapons of Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi as recurring characters.
Apparently there was a Conan series. It didn’t last long and the bloke looked silly,
Worth a mention is a British show called Dark Knight which ran for two seasons at the turn of the century on Channel 5. It played on the Ivanhoe myth and was created by the man who came up with Hawk the Slayer and even had the guy (Peter O’Farrel) who played the dwarf in Hawk, playing a dwarf in this. It is very reminiscent of The Legend of the Seeker (more of that in a moment). The stories had some good fantasy fare going on but the effects were sometimes no better than what they used in Knightmare.
Later, in 2008, came Legend of the Seeker – shoot in New Zealand (tick), based on the Terry Goodkind novels (tick) with red-leather wearing, bisexual, phallus truncheon wielding, dominatrix warrior women called Mord Sith (TICK). This show took a little time to find its feet and get over the LOTR comparisons but it was getting really interesting when it got cancelled after season two, which was a real shame. It had a good cast, likeable male/female leads – great support from Bruce Spence as the wizard Zed (who actually did shoot fireballs from his finger-tips) and a brilliant villainous turn from genre fave Craig Parker, perhaps better known as the elf Haldir from LOTR.
Also starting that year was the British-made show – Merlin. As the title suggests, it was a retread of the Arthur legend but focussing on Merlin’s early years. Now into its fifth season, this show has benefited from having a strong central cast and an excellent dynamic between Arthur and Merlin as they bicker and spar off each other. Whilst there are many standalone episodes, there have always been season arc plots which move the story towards what we know is an inevitable set of events. As the show has matured so have the scripts and storyline. I could go on but I have to front up and say that as I am currently writing for Merlin the Game anything I say could be construed as blatant self-interest…cough…
Camelot – another retread aired in 2010. It depicted a vision of what might actually have happened and placed itself as historical fiction rather than fantasy although Merlin (a good Joseph Fiennes) was a genuine wizard and employed magic as did Morgan le Fay. The look and feel of the show was pretty good and ramping up the adult nature of it was no bad thing but unfortunately, the central character was a bit naff and the whole thing never really fired the imagination – cancelled after season one.
2011/2012 saw some new entrants. Grimm and Once Upon A Time, both riffing off of fairy tale characters, they have clever premises. I like the concept of Grimms being monster hunters and this being a sort of police procedural show. Once Upon a Time’s fantasy/reality cross over is a good idea although OUAT’s fantasy settings do strike me as a little twee – but I suppose it is a fairy tale. Both have been commissioned for second series.
Sinbad debuted in 2012 – another British production – it looks lavish and has good production values but right now, I feel a little cold about it. The crew just aren’t making me happy right now – they just aren’t like the gang from the good ship Serenity…
Okay, I’ll mention it now. Game of Thrones. Brutal, sexy, visually stunning and a great cast and story. Yes. This is the biggest boldest work of television fantasy ever. A completely realised fantasy world that we know is going to get larger and more fantastical as the story develops. Made by HBO who have set the standard for grown-up television, I can’t help but compare it to LOTR due to the sheer size, scope, care and attention that this show has been given. I am intrigued to see how they handle Martin’s later novels in the series and also how the viewers deal with an ever expanding cast of characters and storylines.
Something I’m sure you have noticed is the particular theme running through the shows I have mentioned. All of them, (bar Knightmare which doesn’t really count) have been based on either myths,legends or books. Not one of them has been an original piece of work. I find that interesting. Yes, movies have done that too, but a lot of them haven’t. Why do television production companies choose this path? Perhaps because they know they cannot compete on budgets and cannot make event style television so instead they rely on appealing to public awareness and understanding of the material they are relating. Of course, Game of Thrones production values have been excellent and arguably, whilst GRRM has a large following, they certainly couldn’t have generated enough audience appeal by themselves.
It is clear that there is a hunger for quality, adult, genre entertainment that isn’t just about horny vampires and werewolves. So thank goodness for HBO. I wonder what will happen next? No doubt we’ll still get the usual run of glossier vanilla fantasy fare, bet let’s up the ante a little. Something that takes the marker placed by GoT and develops a world with many races and tensions and magic. Hell, Sci-Fi’s already done it (Star Trek , Battlestar, Babylon 5 par example) so why can’t Fantasy – how about doing something with Feist? That would work very nicely. Or Gemmell. Or Cook. Or Abercrombie. Or Erikson? Or just think up something original? It’s okay, it can steal from all the above, I really don’t mind!