Every streaming service has that blockbuster high-fantasy property that it’s milking into a dried-out husk. NOW has the world of Westeros, while Amazon has Middle-Earth. Netflix, meanwhile, has been piling money into adaptations of Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher series of novels (better known in their video-game form). And so, naturally, after a year that has seen dragons and magic rings dominating television, the lore of The Witcher returns this Christmas with a prequel, set a millennium before Henry Cavill’s Geralt (soon to be Liam Hemsworth’s Geralt) walked these lands. This is The Witcher: Blood Origin.
The action is introduced using a clumsy conceit involving Jaskier (Joey Batey), a familiar face from the first two seasons of the show, and Minnie Driver’s mysterious magic elf. “I slip between worlds and times collecting forgotten stories,” she tells him. “I bring them back to life when the world needs them.” Really, this is just a thin excuse to orient viewers and remind them of the world they, apparently, know and love. The real story here is about the first Witcher, and the ragtag team of warriors who brought them to the Continent.
Among this Magnificent Seven, this fellowship of the wronged, are Sophia Brown’s Éile, a soldier turned bard, and Laurence O’Fuarain’s Fjall, a royal guard banished for shagging the princess. They’re joined by, among others, Michelle Yeoh’s Scían, an ascetic swordmaster, and Francesca Mills as bloodthirsty dwarf Meldof. On the other side of the dispute, Lenny Henry (who also starred in The Rings of Power, and clearly loves magic and/or paychecks) is the villainous druid Balor, and Mirren Mack his not-so-puppet empress, Merwyn. “Control the story,” Balor claims, “control the world.”
But the writers of The Witcher: Blood Origin quickly lose control of their story. The narrative has as many threads as its characters have regional accents. Both grand mythology and domestic politics play out here, while Driver’s expository narration tries to wrest back some command over proceedings. But the writers are not helped by some truly dead-eyed line delivery. Dialogue that looks bad on paper (like “Those who make excuses don’t make history” or “I no longer follow the way of the blade”) truly thuds to earth when exposed to the airless world of The Witcher.
But this isn’t Shakespeare, after all, and the sword-fighting choreography has always been the best thing about this series. Seeing Yeoh beating two top assassins to the ground with nothing but an empty scabbard, or Brown flicking knives into the kneecaps of creepy inn patrons, is as close as Blood Origin gets to poetry. Beyond that, the show is a hammy imperial fantasy that lacks the star power or charisma of its progenitor. “I want to civilise these new worlds,” Empress Merwyn announces, “and create a new golden era for all of elfkind.” There’s a conviction in this po-faced nonsense that’s hard to endure.
So many new television series right now exist merely to serve a noisy fanbase. Whether that’s Star Wars or Marvel, JRR Tolkien or George RR Martin, commissioning has never been more reliant on extant properties. The result is shows such as The Witcher: Blood Origin. Shows that make no attempt to capture new audiences or make any concessions to storytelling simplicity or sound logic. Control the story, control the world, we’re told: well, in feeding us these same mediocre stories over and over, the streaming services are tightening their vice-like grip on modern culture.