Once every thousand years a true seeker is born who’s whole purpose is to slay the embodiment of evil that lives the Prince John life of a pretender in a castle somewhere in a fantasy land. And apparently once every decade a producer decides to breathe new life into the fantasy formula and try another TV series. “Legend of the Seeker” will instantly remind people of the old “Hercules” and “Xena” series, partly because of the plots and costumes, and partly because fantasy on the small screen has a certain look to it that fantasy on the big screen just doesn’t have.
But be warned. We live in a new era of television, and the themes are darker, the subject matter more frank, and the violence more graphic, rather than implied. There are no more armpit stab-and-grab moves to suggest a guy’s been run through with a blade. Limbs get hacked off. Faces get bloodied. People die–people we’re led to care about–and that’s a big reason why this is rated TV-14.
We have Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”) and four co-producers to thank for this ABC-TV series, which was renewed for a second season. And we have novelist Terry Goodkind to thank. “Legend” is based on Goodkind’s “The Sword of Truth” novels, a sprawling series that began with Wizard’s First Rule (1994). I haven’t read the books, but apparently fans have been annoyed at the striking lack of similarities. Goodkind wrote an open letter to fans stating, “I want you all to understand that ABC studios chose not to consult me on actors, scripts, or any other aspect of the show,” but adding, “For my part, I trust in Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert to at some point be able to exert their immense creative talent and do a great job at bringing to life the characters we all love.”
In truth, I have less of a quarrel with the characters than I do with the familiar fantasy structure. Then again, you can’t make a slasher picture without a slasher, or a romantic comedy without opposites that eventually attract. It’s just that as we listen to the explanations of how all of this is laid out, it feels like any other fantasy plot we’ve ever seen–and that includes the first (now fourth) “Star Wars” installment. Here we get a chosen one who was rescued at birth by a wizard and given to two normal peasant parents to raise, just as Ma and Pa Kent raised Clark before he learned how to become Superman. There are warriors and creatures and amulets and charms, and a force field that separates two sections of
The first season’s 22 episodes are largely based on the book Wizard’s First Rule, with a few side journeys to places mentioned but not fleshed out in the book. Like Luke Skywalker, the journey that Richard Cypher (Australian actor Craig Horner) takes is one from farmer/woodsman to warrior, from boy to man, with a wizard named Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander (Bruce Spence) acting as the Obi-wan Kenobi guide figure. And just as Luke was “called” to act when evil forces killed his loved ones, it’s not long into the narrative when Richard loses his father and learns he was really adopted. A mysterious “confessor” named Kahlan Amnell (Bridget Regan) completes the main trio. A confessor, we learn, is an ancient order of women pledged to find the truth, and if a seeker should arise, to protect him with their lives–which sounds a bit Knights Templar, to me. But these confessors also possess magical and mystical powers. They can turn someone’s eyes black with a well-placed stare and get them to do things they normally wouldn’t do. Later we learn it has to do with the power of love, but you could have fooled me.
But it’s the boundary thing that takes the most Cyphering. On the one side you have Westland, a place where people like Richard and his father, George (Jeffrey Thomas), lead quiet, average lives and there’s no magic to muk things up. On the other side of a force-field boundary is a place called Midlands, and beyond that is D’Hara, where a dark lord named Darken Rahl (Craig Parker) rules and, of course, wants to extend his empire to the other two provinces. To do so, he needs to get a hold of the Book of Counted Shadows, which contains within it the secrets of power. If evil gets a hold of it, why, the rest of the people can kiss their keesters goodbye. It’s what Kahlan and her sister were trying to protect and take to a seeker when they were overtaken by Rahl’s men and the sister killed. And it shocks her just a wee bit to learn that the woodsman she encountered during her flight was actually the seeker she was looking for. Of course there’s sexual tension between them, but there are reasons why they can’t become more than friends.
The sets are elaborate enough, and the location filming in New Zealand is a big plus. The actors do a fine job with the characters they’re given, but I can’t help but return to an old refrain: How much do you penalize a film or TV series for being so familiar? Maybe not at all. Maybe fantasy fans want to read familiar fantasy plots, because the novel series by Terry Goodkind–which began in 1994, at least 50 years after J. R. R. Tolkien wrote his Lord of the Rings trilogy and almost 20 years after George Lucas released his first “Star Wars” film–was still hugely popular. None of the fans seemed to mind echoes of these fantasies, nor did they care that the Sword of Truth and the scraggly wizard Zedd were reminiscent of Excalibur and Merlin in the world of Arthurian legend. And the witches who get into torture? Those Mord’Sith even have a name that sounds straight out of “The Phantom Menace”–though they supply some of this series’ cheesier moments.
Production values are strong for “Legend of the Seeker,” and while it still has a TV feel about it rather than a big-screen epic, it’s imminently watchable. The special effects are quite good, though creature fans will probably wish for a few more like the Gar (a winged goblin that uses blood flies to sniff out his prey). And just remember that there’s a little more blood and gore than we normally see on non-cable TV. No animals were harmed during the making of the film, but that poor horse looked convincingly eaten alive.
Twenty-two episodes are housed in a single-width keep case with two plastic pages holding the five discs, no overlapping. I wish all the multi-disc cases were this well-designed.
As is the case, lately, TV production values have been quite good to begin with, and this was filmed in widescreen–presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Colors are appropriately saturated to match the scene, and there’s a decent amount of detail for a DVD with only a slight amount of grain.
The audio is a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English, with subtitles in French and Spanish. It’s actually a pretty dynamic track, with battle sounds producing some nice “pop” and clash, and dialogue in softer scenes clean and precise. The rear speakers even get involved more than we usually see in a TV series.
Disc one features commentaries on “Prophecy” and “Destiny” by actors Horner and Regan, and executive producers Ken Biller and Stephen Tolkin (now there’s a coincidental name). Disc two has a commentary on “Denna” featuring Horner and actor Jessica Marais. Disc three features a commentary on “Puppeteer” by actors Parker and Spence. And Disc five has a making-of feature, “Forging the Sword: Crafting a Legend” and “Words of Truth: A Conversation with Terry Goodkind,” which fans ought to enjoy because you get to glimpse his home and life, not just a talking head. There are testimonies too, as from his wife. And he talks about how important art is to him. Also on Disc five are eight deleted scenes: “What Does Adie See?” “Confessor to the Seeker,” “Benedict’s Plight,” “Using Pain,” “Richard’s Training,” “Night Confessions & Promises,” “Memories are Slippery Things,” and “This is the Truth.”
This TV adaptation isn’t the best that fantasy has to offer, partly because the situations become less believable the farther we get from the main characters, and partly because of scenes that can only be described as “cheesy.” But we’ve seen much worse on television, and the series is well produced. If you can get past the clichés and those cheesy moments, “Legend of the Seeker” might be your thing.