Warning: This programme contains insufficient sex, violence and swearing

Patrick Freyne: Amazon Prime’s The Wheel of Time dives straight into mystical whimsy

“The Dark One is waiting. His whispers are already in the backs of our minds. But there will be one who stands against him. The Dragon has been born again and it is one of you!” One day I will tune into the News at One to hear these words coming from Bryan Dobson’s lips. For now it’s just some dialogue from The Wheel of Time.

Kids these days don't know what it's like to go on an epic quest because a wandering wizard has come to their village warning of a dark power rising. No, it's all TikTok and large trousers for them. Amazon Prime Video is hoping to address this gap in their knowledge with an adaptation of The Wheel of Time, a series of high fantasy novels by Robert Jordan that were beloved by people of my generation along with step haircuts and the music of Chesney Hawkes.

For those who don’t know, “high fantasy” is a genre in which everyone involved is so high nobody cares that they’ve just rewritten Lord of the Rings again. It’s also a genre where when someone says, “This is very, very long,” the writer in question looks happy and says, “Thank you! The council meeting in chapter 5 is over 70 pages, and I made it largely about the taxation of orc mead.”

Rosamund Pike spends a fair bit of time explaining things with a straight face. She has, in fairness, a very straight face

On paper this is perfect for a streaming platform like Amazon that is looking for a big Game of Thrones-style show and, consequently, direct-debit payments that will never end. What people forget about Game of Thrones, of course, is that they initially suckered non-nerds in with swear words, violence and sex, and only added dragons and zombies when the audience had no friends left. In contrast, The Wheel of Time dives straight into the mystical whimsy.


In the first episodes we meet a bunch of happy-go-lucky villagers living in a rural idyll. They're basically tall hobbits. Their village, Tall Hobbiton, is visited by a wandering wizard played by Rosamund Pike, who is essentially Lady Gandalf. Later our heroes meet a balladeer in a tavern who turns out to be some sort of Folk-Rock Aragorn. (They have terrible folk-rock in this reality; perhaps this is the great evil that needs to be vanquished.) And Lady Gandalf warns of a "dark one" who is basically a version of Sauron who's not just an inflamed googly eye on a pedestal. (If Sauron's optician had just given him some eye drops he probably wouldn't have laid siege to Middle Earth; I've about three books' worth of Sauron's Optician material if the estate of JRR Tolkien wants to get in touch.)

The Dark One is served by terrifying dark riders called the eyeless (Sauron thinks he has problems!) and an army of thuggish "trollocs" who are all weirdly familiar. I also initially heard "trollocs" as "trollops", and for a while I really enjoyed hearing characters worrying about what the "trollops" were up to and talking about "trollops" rising and about being besieged by "trollops." I was sad when I realised that the word was actually "trollocs". In fact, I said a different word that rhymes with "trollocs" at that point.

Anyway, before you can say, “Frodo, you must take the ring to Mordor,” the happy peasant village is attacked by these “trollocs”, who are, in fact, murderous bestial cannibals with horns and hooves and fangs. It’s unclear what motivates the trollocs in these early episodes. It’s possible that their sense of grievance has its roots in economics and the unequal distribution of resources in Tall Hobbiton. Of course, it’s also possible they’re just dicks who want to be able to use racial epithets in their stand-up routines and whose guttural shouts translate as “End ‘woke’ cancel culture!” My point is, we don’t get much character detail, as the trollocs eviscerate and eat the villagers.

We get lots of backstory otherwise. There’s nothing fans of high fantasy like more than characters explaining things in great detail, sometimes in song (see: Folk-Rock Aragorn). Rosamund Pike spends a fair bit of time explaining things with a straight face. She has, in fairness, a very straight face. She rounds up four of the tall hobbits, and they make their way on horseback to her magical kingdom of feminist wizards, where she will determine whether one of the four is “the Dragon Reborn” with some sort of PCR test. (Much like Nphet, the Gandalfs haven’t fully endorsed mobile antigen testing for chosen ones.)

The makers of The Wheel of Time reportedly had an $80m budget, but it's put to such generic ends it's hard to see that money on the screen

I’m not sure how “chosen one” narratives are going to land these days. Today, declaring someone to be the “chosen one” is just basic middle-class parenting. But the main flaw with the “who is the Dragon Reborn?” tease is that it feels pretty obvious that it’s going to be the hunky guy with the cool coat and the mopey pout. His friends have, much like your friends, been assigned generic roles as shifty comic relief, stalwart sidekick and spiky love interest. If he’s not the chosen one I will eat my mint-condition collectible wizard’s hat.

So far The Wheel of Time is slick and eventful but lacks specificity. (In fairness to Robert Jordan, that can’t actually be said about his books.) The tall hobbits seem a bit robust and healthy to be subsistence farmers, and their clothes often feel weirdly contemporary. Background characters look like Renaissance-fair re-enactors. Horses are raced across sweeping landscapes, but that happens in every programme nowadays, so this might as well be stock footage.

The baddies are so basic in their bestiality they’re more funny than scary. The programme-makers reportedly had an $80 million budget, but it’s put to such generic ends it’s hard to see that money on the screen. It reminds me of a quote from our only contemporary magic wizard, Dolly Parton: “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.”

In Dopesick (Disney+) evil is not something that rises from the netherworld and is kept in check by a mystical chosen one but is something that seeps into poor communities because of insufficiently regulated markets and upper-class hubris. Dopesick is the eight-part true story of how the immensely wealthy Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, aggressively marketed the "miracle" drug oxycontin and created the United States' opioid crisis.

Danny Strong’s script is ultimately all about systems: the working-class labour that leads to chronic pain, the erosion of public institutions meant to protect people, and the ways in which good intentions can be corrupted by corporate lies. The action jumps chronologically and geographically from board meetings where inconvenient facts are ignored to marketing conferences where strategic lies are touted as fact-based strategies, to a mining town where a well-meaning doctor (Michael Keaton) fosters addiction in his neighbours, and to a group of federal investigators unravelling it all after whole communities have been devastated.

It often feels more like an extended work of narrative journalism than a traditional drama (the source material was a book by Beth Macy), but that’s not a bad thing. It’s gripping, enraging and desperately sad.