What Hath Game of Thrones Wrought? Fantasy TV Past, Present, and Future

August 15, 2018
HBO's Game of Thrones might be the biggest fantasy TV series ever, but there are other worlds and other times...

There’s no denying that HBO’s Game of Thrones, soon to be embarking on its eighth and final season, is a genuine television phenomenon. More than any other screen outing, big or small, save for Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss’s long-running adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s ongoing series of door-stopper fantasy novels has brought the language, concepts and ephemera into the mainstream. Prior to 2011 you’d have been surprised to hear talk of dragons and dynasties, ancestral blades and bloody battles – now it’s par for the course.

But while GoT may be a watershed moment in fantasy TV, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, it’s part of a continuum; there were series before Thrones, there are series on now, surfing on the HBO show’s cultural bow-wave, and there will be series after, drawing energy from the ripples in GoT‘s wake. Come with us now for a less-than-exhaustive (there are so many one season wonders out there) look at some of the highlights.

The Distant Past

Robin of Sherwood (1984 – 1986)

Series creator Richard Carpenter was already a dab hand at televisual fantasy when he knocked together this short-lived but hugely influential British series – he’d already ushered children’s series Catweazle, about a medieval wizard transported into the modern age, onto the screen back in the 1970s.

For Robin of Sherwood, he once again indulged his passion for medievalism; his take on the legend of Robin Hood was the grittiest to come along since at least 1976’s Robin and Marian, positing the titular outlaw as the leader of a band of Saxon rebels, including Ray Winstone as a vengeful Will Scarlet, fighting against Norman occupation. The series also introduced the character of Nasir, a Saracen assassin played by Mark Ryan, and an obvious influence on the more multi-ethnic Merry Men seen in pretty much every incarnation since.

Robin of Sherwood would be straight-up historical drama, except Carpenter weaves in a lot of pagan mysticism (and a lot of Clannad music), mainly in the form of ancient deity Herne the Hunter (John Abineri), who choose Robin as his avatar.

Thanks to that wrinkle we also get two Robins for the price of one; originally Michael Praed essayed the character as a yeoman archer (although secretly the son of a noble), but after he was filled with crossbow bolts at the end of season 2, Jason “Son of Sean” Connery came on board as Robert of Huntingdon, who takes up Robin’s mantle as the new avatar of Herne,

Sadly, Connery’s run only lasted one season – co-financier Goldcrest had to pull out following a string of high profile box office bombs, including Revolution (1995) and Absolute Beginners (1986), and remaining investor HTV couldn’t afford the expensive series on their own.

Oddly, original lead Michael Praed has a connection with Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin – he was cast in the rather terrible 1987 adaptation of Martin’s sci-fi story Nightflyers, which is now being filmed once again for Syfy.

Beauty and the Beast (1987 – 1989)

Another series with a George R. R. Martin connection – the author was a writer and producer on this urban fantasy series, which took the broad strokes of the old fairy tale and transposed it to to modern day New York City. The Beauty is Catherine (The Terminator‘s Linda Hamilton), an intrepid Assistant District Attorney who is rescued by the Beast, Vincent (Hellboy‘s Ron Perlman in a rare romantic lead) after she is beaten and left for dead.

A giant with a leonine appearance, Vincent hails from a secret, idealistic community of quasi-medieval street people who live below the streets of New York. He’s a sensitive and learned soul, but his strength and animalistic rage are enough to carry the day when the demands of ’80s American prime time drama kick in.

Series creator Ron Koslow and his team actually balance those demands with the dreamlike, unquenchably romantic fantasy elements fairly well, although to modern sensibilities the contrast is often jarring. The series took a turn for the darker in Season 3, in which  Catherine is murdered and Vincent must both avenge her and rescue their infant son from a criminal mastermind (brilliant character actor Stephen McHattie). Viewers turned off in droves, and the series was cancelled.

A remake starring Kristin Kreuk and Jay Ryan ran on The CW for four seasons from 2012. It’s terrible.

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess (1994 – 2001)

You may mock, but there was a time when Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was the highest-rated syndicated series on the planet. Starring Kevin Sorbo as the eponymous mythical muscleman and Michael Hurst as his sidekick, Iolaus, the series was produced under Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi’s Renaissance Pictures shingle – and Evil Dead fans will be more than familiar with those two names.

Beginning as a series of five telemovies in 1994 before making the leap to series, Hercules followed the hero and his friends through an episodic romp across a cod-fantasy version of Heroic Age Greece, cheerfully turfing any notion of historical and literary fidelity in favour of campy laughs and stirring derring-do.

However, Hercules‘ pole position in the pop culture pantheon has been largely eclipsed by its spin-off series, Xena: Warrior Princess, which followed the exploits of Lucy Lawless’s redemption-seeking Amazon and her friend/deeply coded romantic partner, Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor). Herc may have been popular, but Xena remains a genuine cult classic, with a massive, still vibrant following in the LGBTQI+ community (possibly to the consternation of now Born Again Kevin Sorbo).

Both series are notable for attracting a strong cast of B movie faves and local stars (they were both filmed in New Zealand), including Raimi regulars Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi, Claudia Black (Farscape), Karl Urban (Dredd, Star Trek), Meg Foster (Masters of the Universe), Gina Torres (Firefly, Hannibal), Marton Csokas (The Equalizer) and more. They also had a powerful effect on the New Zealand film industry, bringing jobs and infrastructure to the country and making it a destination location for fantasy series – a rep cemented by one Peter Jackson, who worked on one of the Hercules TV flicks well before he took off for Middle Earth.

The success of Xena and Hercules also led to a sudden, short lived glut of similar fare: The Adventures of Sinbad, Conan the Adventurer, The New Adventures of Robin Hood, BeastMaster, Tarzan: The Epic Adventures all cropped up on the airwaves, largely to negligible effect and enjoyment.

Roar (1997)

A fantasy adventure series set in the year 400 AD, Roar followed the exploits of a band of Irish partisans fighting against Roman occupation, which sounds like a pretty robust framework. So why was it cancelled after only eight episodes?

Well, partly it was down to poor writing, and partly it was down to cheap production values, but we like to think the chief reason was that Queensland looks nothing like Ireland circa 400 AD, and Queensland, sadly, was where Roar was filmed. Seeing Celtic berserkers take on Roman legionaries against a backdrop of gum trees tends to shatter the immersion more than a little.

Roar is almost completely forgotten at this stage of the game, but remains notable for a few reasons. One is that it was co-created by Beauty and the Beast’s Ron Koslow and former Hardy Boy Shaun Cassidy, who also created the genre series American Gothic and Invasion. The other is that it starred a pre-fame Heath Ledger as Irish rebel leader Connor. Yes, that Heath Ledger. Also in the cast: Vera Farmiga (The Departed, The Conjuring), making her very first TV appearance. That’s just enough to lever Roar out of the “footnote” bin.

In a World Eerily Similar to Our Own

The Magicians (2015 – Now)

The shorthand for The Magicians is basically “Harry Potter but grown up and complicated (there’s a chance you want to @ us to say that Harry Potter is grown up and complicated. Please don’t). Based on the series of novels by Lev Grossman, The Magicians follows fantasy dork Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) as he discovers that magic is real when he is inducted into Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy. Sound familiar? The Magicians also cheerfully lifts from The Chronicles of Narnia: Quentin is obsessed with a series of “hidden world” books, Fillory and Further, and discovers that the secret realm they’re set in is both real and a potential threat to the mundane world.

From there, The Magicians sprawls out to encompass a large and diverse ensemble of misfit, well, magicians, taking the focus off Quentin to include strong storylines for Julia (Stella Maeve), his childhood friend who doesn’t make the cut at Brakebills and so pursues a darker and more dangerous path to power; Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), a naturally gifted magic wielder who initially comes across as a Hermione-style swot; Penny (Arjun Gupta), Quentin’s arrogant roommate who possesses the power to travel between worlds; and the magnificent double act that is Eliot (Hale Appleman) and Margo (Summer Bishil), hedonistic older students who bring a bit of Spike and Drusilla danger and style to the proceedings.

There’s a lot of Buffy in The Magicians‘ DNA, in fact. It’s not shy of a joke, but it takes its emotional and mortal stakes seriously. It also features a love affair between a magical sloth and her human familiar, which is a bit different. Three seasons are currently available on Amazon Video, with a fourth due in 2019.

American Gods (2017 – Now)

Another literary adaptation, this time from the 2001 novel by the spooky kid, Neil Gaiman, and another hidden world – this one populated by the all-but-forgotten old gods, who live their long but quiet lives on the back roads and in the back alleys of modern day America, taking what worship they can. Into this netherworld is thrust the ominously named Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), recent parolee and widow, who is hired as bodyguard and bagman for the mysterious Mr Wednesday (the great Ian McShane, sporting a glass eye and an affinity for ravens – c’mon, you know who he’s supposed to be…). A war is brewing, and Wednesday is travelling across America, recruiting old gods to his cause, while the new gods – representations of modern concepts like media, technology, and globalisation, move to consolidate their power.

Brought to the small screen by Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049), American Gods is a gorgeous, layered, somewhat shapeless affair – at least the first season is, and that’s all we’ve got to go by at this point, with a second season due in 2019 (sans Bryan Fuller, with Gaiman stepping into a showrunning position). The eight episodes we do have are really something, though – visually stunning, sexually transgressive, bloody, bawdy, and populated by a cast of mystical misfits like pugnacious leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber); undead temptress -and Shadow’s deceased wife – Laura (Australian actress Emily Browning); Czernobog (Peter Stormare), a god of death and darkness down on his luck; and Media (The X-Files‘ Gillian Anderson), who manifests in the form of Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe, David Bowie and more.

American Gods drips with potential, but suffers from being all sizzle and no steak right now – an issue that may be remedied when season 2 hits and the narrative (presumably) gets out of first gear.

Many Years From Now

Conan

Texan scribe Robert E. Howard’s mighty-thewed hero, Conan the Barbarian, is no stranger to screens big or small. Famously brought to life by Arnold Schwarzenegger in cinematic outings Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Conan the Destroyer (1984), the big Cimmerian was also essayed by Ralf Möller in a brief 1997 TV outing, by Jason Momoa in a regrettable 2011 theatrical reboot, and even trod the jeweled thrones of Saturday morning in a short-lived cartoon, Conan the Adventurer (1992 – 1993).

None have quite captured the spirit of Howard’s melancholy barbarian adventurer (although the fist couple of swings come closest), but now Amazon have decided to have a crack, announcing that a new television series based on the Conan stories is in development.  As we wrote when the news broke, “They’re apparently going back to the mightily thewed anti-hero’s pulp roots, too” ‘Conan retells the classic character’s story via a return to his literary origins. Driven out of his tribal homelands, Conan wanders the mysterious and treacherous world of civilization where he searches for purpose in a place that rejects him as a mindless savage.’

We also had some advice that we stand by:

  1. Frazetta the hell out of everything.
  2. See what Momoa’s up to. He was a great Conan in a terrible Conan film. With the right material, he could nail it.
  3. Basil Poledouris (RIP) or GTFO.

Fans of the more violent elements of Game of Thrones should find themselves well-served by a faithful take on Conan, who tended to leave, temple, battlefield and barroom alike awash with blood and littered with limbs. We shall see when (if, tbh) Conan finds his way to the small screen in, say, 2020 or thereabouts.

The Lord of the Rings

Amazon have apparently decided there’s gold in them thar nerd books, having laid plans to spend a stunning amount of money ($250m for the rights alone, and a budget of  a billion!) on a projected five season series set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Crushing the dreams of deep cut dorks everywhere, the series will not be based on Tolk’s nigh-impenetrable The Silmarillion, rather telling the story of what Strider, aka Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen in the movies) got up to before he cropped up in The Prancing Pony in Bree.

Details are predictably thin on the ground right now, including whether or not the series will tie in directly with Peter Jackson’s semi-acclaimed filmic take, although persistent rumours indicate PJ has had “talks” and Sir Ian McKellan has expressed an interest in donning Gandalf’s grey robes again. A 2021 release date has been penciled in.

Even More Game of Thrones

Not doing a follow-up series to Game of Thrones is just leaving money on the table. HBO know this – hell, they didn’t even wait for GRRM to finish up the source novels – and so it came as little surprise when it was announced that work had commenced on a prequel series.

Hedging their bets, HBO commissioned five pitches for spin-offs, including work from the likes of Brian Helgeland (LA Confidential), Max Borenstein (Kong: Skull Island) and Carly Wray (Mad Men), before settling on one that will “…chronicle the world’s descent from the golden Age of Heroes into its darkest hour.” Writer and producer Jane Goldman (Kick-AssKingsman) is on board along with Martin himself, although the extent to which the novelist is involved is not known.

It’s early days yet, with the as-yet-untitled series expected to debut in 2021. And don’t count out the four runner-ups either – apparently they’re all still in development. Which means we’re not going to be quit of Westeros for a long, long time…

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