The Shannara Chronicles originally purported to be a high fantasy show populated with heroes, nobles, Gandalf-esque Druids, and tons of elves. And so it is, but it is also something else — something much stranger than anyone could have reasonably expected to come out of MTV, with its focus on perpetually burgeoning romance and rebellion lite.
Who would have predicted that, with just two episodes left, Shannara would take a diversion that involved a Star Trek-inspired cowboy rave? No one outside the writers’ room.
This week, a bunch of hippies and hipsters booed Spock for being an elf as they watched Trek, presented here as primary documentation of humanity’s historic trips to the star. Then they danced to electronic music in a fantasy rave, snatching the “Weirdest Scene on Television This Week” title from The X-Files.
What is going on here? How did the Hero of a Thousand Faces quest turn into a bad Firefly outtake?
The answer has everything to do with the show’s desire to check both the fantasy and post-apocalypse genre boxes. The Shannara Chronicles is leaning into the Planet of the Apes, post-humanity nature of the Shannara world’s setting. In the first several books of the series, there was an implication that this might have been a post-apocalyptic Earth instead of just a regular high fantasy setting, but it didn’t really make a huge difference at any level, beyond providing some background color. This changed in later novels, with entire storylines built around rogue artificial intelligences and the like.
The Shannara show, on the other hand, has been all about the old Earth setting. From the beginning, it was present in the background, but as the season has progressed, it’s become an increasingly important element of the plot. Here, there’s toxic waste, used for an explosion to get away from a demon; there is an abandoned high school, with a letterman jacket available for the elf princess Amberle to put on when she needs to warm up. And now there is a human colony seeking out old technology, and using that to survive in a harsh environment. That makes sense, but, boy, did it devolve into referential nonsense in a hurry.
What is Shannara going for with these scenes? Why has it emphasized the old Earth potential of the setting so excessively beyond its source material? Why is it taking the time to focus on this, instead of the creeping horror and military fantasy of the original book that worked so well? Watching The Shannara Chronicles doesn’t answer these questions. There isn’t a coherent whole here and there are just two episodes left. On the one hand: not a great sign. On the other: the ridiculousness is fascinating.